Chardin's humble roots are seen in humble subjects

To appreciate Chardin's art, it helps to know that he was the son of a master cabinetmaker (who had a special skill at making billiard tables). Eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin had what was known as "humble origins."

Since he had ambitions to be a painter, he was allowed not to follow his father's trade. But he did inherit an element of honest, unpretentious craftsmanship as a painter. And his subject matter was generally humble, too. It was domestic - deliberately ordinary.

He left flights of sublime heroic imagination to the "history painters" of his time - to those artists for whom the human figure was the most expressive means and dramatic narrative the highest aim.

Despite a false start in the studio of a history painter, the young Chardin found that his métier was in the translation of onions, copper pots, loaves of bread, fish, and game into paint.

His uniquely tactile style was admired for its "naiveté," though this word did not connote charming awkwardness then as it does sometimes today.

Although his still lifes sometimes stray into the dining room, their context is usually the kitchen. When he began to incorporate people into his world of things, they were likely to be a scullery girl, a cellar boy, a maid scouring a pan, or maybe a governess teaching an attentive child. Only rarely did Chardin observe ladies and gentlemen, and he was never a fashionable portraitist.

But he did paint children and adolescents with close understanding, his down-to-earthness saving this subject from oversweet sentimentality.

The boy making a wall of folded playing cards shown here is dressed in a way that suggests he is a servant. Chardin favored the subject of young boys building houses of cards - several variations exist - and there may well be a symbolism contained in the theme, though it is never overstressed.

This painting quietly admires scrupulous accuracy and manual control in a fragile, temporary world. It celebrates patience, concentration, dedication - as well as the craftsmanship of a well-made table.

All these are also qualities of a firmly constructed painting.

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