A ``HOUSE of cards,'' of course, is an obvious symbol of precariousness. It was a subject the 18th-century French artist Jean Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) chose to paint a number of times.
When engravings were made from Chardin's paintings - reproductions in black and white to make his images available to wider, more popular audiences - explanations were often affixed that were not originally attached to the paintings themselves. According to Philip Conisbee in his book ``Chardin'' (1986), when another version of ``The House of Cards'' theme was engraved, ``verses were added to say that no human undertaking is any more certain or solid than this boy's house of cards.''
But such explanations tended to distort or even cheapen the subtlety of Chardin's original, unexplained pictures while purporting to make his art more accessible. His paintings never seem to have been conceived to make some obvious point.
Perhaps there is something inherently didactic or moralizing in a subject like the house of cards, a hidden or coded meaning, even, but this does not seem to be the main or overt purpose of the artist's use of that image.
Chardin was a remarkably unliterary painter, particularly in comparison to some of the academically trained painters of large histories and allegories who were considered to be practitioners of the highest form of art in his time.
In contrast, Chardin was dedicated, partly by choice and partly, it seems, by a recognition of the limits of his capabilities, to paintings composed of things seen in front of him. What he did was make his limitations his strengths, and he succeeded in raising his unpretentious form of art (which did, after all, have honorable forebears such as Vermeer, De Hooch, Rembrandt, and Terborch) in the estimation of his contemporaries.
THERE was some awareness of his being an exceptional painter in spite of being a specialist in still life: dead hares, apples, pots and pans, and servant girls clutching loaves of bread, doing the laundry, or scraping turnips. As Chardin developed and became quite successful and popular, his genre scenes tended to leave the cellar and servants' quarters, and he began to paint bourgeois children and mothers-and-children. But he was never a painter of the aristocracy.
His contemporaries admired his remarkable ability to represent what he saw; they also described his art as ``naive'' more than once - but this was a term that in the 20th century has come to signify something different from what it evidently meant in 18th-century France. Because Chardin did not paint large pictures or decorations from his imagination and illustrate heroic, classical myths, he was thought to be rather simple and down-to-earth in a lowly, almost artisanal genre of art-making, but he certainly wasn't thought to be a childlike primitive like our century's Le Douanier Rousseau.
Chardin's work was admired in spite of its lack of high ambition, and he was accepted into the echelons of the Parisian art world by reception into the Academie des Beaux Arts in 1728. His growing popularity in his own time coincided with an increased admiration for Dutch 17th-century painting, which made serious but somewhat modest paintings out of domestic objects - flowers and fruit, home interiors with quietly busy or inactive figures, mothers and children - just the kind of subjects Chardin espoused.
It is the veracity and balanced rightness of his paintings, their truth of tone and color, the consonance between the applied surface of his paint and the surfaces, qualities, and substances of what he represents, that form the dominant first impression of a Chardin painting.
His obvious characteristics as a painter are, in fact, quite the opposite of the precariousness of a house of cards. Chardin's contemporary Denis Diderot, the philosopher and critic of art, was a great admirer of this artist, and was inclined to come out with such praise as: ``O Chardin! It is not white, red or black pigment that you mix on your palette: it is the very substance of objects, it is air and light that you take on the tip of your brush and place on the canvas.''
APART from the rather exaggerated conceit involved in the notion that a painter might paint with air and light, the writer's statement makes two solid points. One is that Chardin was remarkable in the way his often thick paint made not just visible, but persuasively tactile, as if one could reach out and touch them, ``the very substance of objects.''
The second is that one of the ways in which he achieved this apparent tactility was by an extremely canny and revealing use of lighting, and an ingenious organization of the objects in his pictures so that the air around them is apparent. The light and dark is organized so that maximum effect is given to the dark profile, for instance, of one pan or vessel against another, or to the reflective gleam or shine of metal or glass; or, in ``The House of Cards,'' to the way light catches these propped and folded little rectangles, or the side of the child's face.
Chardin's use of air is seen in the way he always manages to convince the viewer that a figure - or a house of cards - has an unseen side that could be seen if one could move around it. He enables you to see through a jug handle or into the interior of a copper pot: They exist in space and air. This determination to make objects have palpable substance and three-dimensionality - even things like sheets of paper - suggests that Chardin had in him something of the sculptor or modeler, as if he were actually making the things he painted.
For Chardin's appreciators both in his own time and since, the magic and fascination of his work has been bound up with its realism, with the artist's unusual ability to make a painting a thoroughly convincing image of its subject, to somehow transform mere paint into ``the very substance of objects.''
Objects were often the subject matter of his paintings - he was first known almost exclusively for his still-life paintings - and even when he began to quietly and with an unpretentious sensitivity introduce figures into his compositions, they had a relationship and rapport with objects that in some ways allows him to present them also as part of his object-world.
There is a balance between figure and object, as if the first brings life to the second, while the second brings a kind of stability to the first. In Chardin's hands, the ``House of Cards'' subject seems to have much more to do with stability, in fact, than with the traditional interpretation of it as an emblem of the unreliable and unsafe. The boy's concentration as he is about to place another card without disturbing what he has already built, could be taken as an analogy for the building skill and nicety of an artist, exactly like Chardin, composing and controlling every last detail of his paintings. He was known to be a very slow painter, aiming at a perfect placement and adjustment of every part, rigorous and never in the least facile.
The need to make an art of unperturbable, yet vitally alive, content, meant a considerable degree of agreement between the artist and his subject matter. He understood better than most the exactitude required of a classically satisfactory painting, and that this required the artist to epitomize care, stillness, and certainty. Painting is not child's play; it demands an unerring hand and eye no less than the game of building a house of cards.
Vincent van Gogh wrote about Chardin in one of his letters to his brother Theo something that fits ``The House of Cards'' revealingly:
``When the thing represented is, in point of character, absolutely in agreement and one with the manner of representing it, isn't it just that which gives a work of art its quality?
``That is why, as far as painting goes, a household loaf is especially good when it is painted by Chardin.''
THE idea, presumably, is that Char-din's paint quality and surface, which was often thought rather rough in his day, has a special similarity to dough and crust - and so it does - sometimes. But, as ``The House of Cards'' shows, it was just as much capable of being in agreement with the smooth feel of green baize, the hardness and sheen of wood, the specific characters of hair, young skin, ribbon, coat material - and the light and shadow, the white, red, and black printing of flat, crisp playing cards. As bold, rough, and real as Chardin may be as a painter, he also has a sure finesse, a scrupulous delicacy of balance, a steadiness of touch.