In both artist and art, a quiet determination

It is difficult to think of an artist who conveyed the quiet steadiness of rapt concentration with more understanding than the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). He did so, quite often, in paintings showing a child at a table learning or playing. Sometimes a mother or a governess is depicted with the child. In this painting, though, the "schoolmistress" seems herself scarcely into adulthood. Perhaps she is the child's older sister.

The painting is thought to be a companion to a painting of a boy engrossed in building a house of cards. This boy is almost certainly the son of Chardin's friend, Jean-Jacques Lenoir. The "school- mistress," then, and her chubby, uncomprehending pupil, could also be Lenoir children. This would mean that, apart from being a "genre" study of modern life - a kind of typical domestic scene with possibly moral or social undertones - it is also a portrait.

Chardin was surely inspired by 17th-century Dutch paintings of such genre subjects. He is likely to have known, in Parisian collections of the time, more than one Dutch painting of a woman teaching a child to read. But he brought his own sensibility, and his own strong touch, freshly to bear on the theme. It is tempting to believe that Chardin found the slowness of the toddler and the serious patience of the "teacher" as she waits for the child to learn, particularly appealing because of his own dogged and time-consuming determination as a painter. He was the least facile of painters. More than one contemporary recorded that he took a very long time to make his paintings, and that he only worked on one at a time.

Still life - the painting of stationary objects - was his particular forte; and still life painting need not involve quick flights of imagination or airy gestures of the brush. It allows for gradual, pondering realization. Chardin's still lifes have weight. They betray no indecision. His art - and, also, in this case its subject - is a study in rapt concentration.

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