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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

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Some Thoughts about James Herbert on Chardin

James D. Herbert, "A Picture of Chardin's Making," Eighteenth Century Studies, 34 (2001): 251- 274.

Bravo! Professor Herbert has taken Chardin scholarship back about 75 years! Groethuysen restated, and lacking some of the nuances of the original. Do the Le Nain paintings evoked here capture "picturesque poverty?" (p. 251). Hmm. There is suggestive anachronism, and then there is just plain anachronism.

The historian floating between zeitgeist and receptionsgeschichte eschews raising the really difficult general question: Why did 16th-17th century Dutch genre painting have such an attraction for 18th-century French painters, and for those who commissioned their works?

Taking up Chardin's Soap Bubbles, Professor Herbert proposes to interpret these paintings as capturing a "shift" from the fuzzy innocence of infancy through the enlightenment of the boy's maturation, into full-blown adulthood (p. 256). The argument goes on that there is more than the vanitas theme, perhaps event the disappointment that is felt after a first love.

In1979, Pierre Rosenberg worte: "Si tout le monde s'accorde à voir dans la bulle de savon un symbole de la fragilité de la vie humaine, une vanitas, faut-il pour autant interpréter l'œuvre comme une allusion à l'inconstance des femmes et à l'amour qui passe?" (p. 206, exhibition catalogue, M.N. Paris). The only citation to Rosenberg in the article refers to the lines engraved in the print vrsion. Obviously, 1979 is a long time ago. Chardin scholarship has progressed (really?), so there did not seem to be a need to ponder Rosenberg's question. It is so much easier to affirm, and not very coherently, the older view.

Then, recognizing that soap bubbles already had a long history as representing the fragility of life (especially in regard to children, in an era when only 50% of them reached adulthood), Professor Herbert observes that surely René Demoris is right: the emblematic legacy of the previous centuries had become a discours usé by Chardin's time. Thus Chardin's bubble, rather than make weighty reference to the fragility of life, might instead be jesting about the ephemerality of young love — an interpretation reinforced by a number of titillating, bubble-filled confections of the period from the likes of Van Loo (p. 256). Is this a step beyond what Rosenberg wrote in 1979?

I shall not attempt to sum up the huge literature on thematic structures about love and death in Western culture, present already in Troubadour writings and present in almost an infinite variety of images and metaphors in verse down to the 20th century. Shifting the meanings of the soap bubble to disappointment in love and away from fragility of life (and back again) misses the point that these are virtually inseparable elements in a larger ensemble of cultural artifacts.

Nor shall I take the time to sum up Philippe Ariès's works on specific contexts of the eroticization of death, and the specific cultural associations in a perhaps more "secular" 18th century, making fragility of life both a continuity of theme and something quite different. Ariès finds that the child-centered foyer appears in the 18th century and that this new affective family is bourgeois. His use of the word bourgeois is quite complex, subtle, and is discerned in private life, not on class nor on a bildung so strongly articulated in German cultural history (there are important exceptions). From Sombart to Babeau to Groethuysen and on to E. Barber, a grand tradition of scholarship that is almost hermetically sealed from further nuance and refinement — it is a tradition, a church.

From Daniel Roche's Culture des apparences we learn that the Parisian bourgeois, that is, the elite merchants, et al., were rather slow, if not behind in adopting the new consumerist culture of Paris in the 18th century. As just one example, the invention of the dress prompted the triumph of art and style over quality of cloth, thus making it possible for seamstresses and servants to dress in the latest fashion — by making a "knock-off." The women's magazines would contribute to the consumerist shifts as well. And what about the creation of small furniture, including women's writing-desks, another general cultural element of enormous change (Dena Goodman). Professor Herbert is still grappling with the Groethuysen problem: How to impose an awkward, quite simplistic thesis on a complex, rapidly changing society?

One could go on and on. How to read Jaubert (the key is the genre — an éloge), to exploring and appreciating Undank's very suggestive work through the concept of the "domestic sublime," and despite all the research and writing, the changing semantic field of the word bourgeois must still be worked out with more precision as such words move from an ontological to a functional social frame (Clouatre).

Fragility of life, and the iris, not just any flower. And what to make of the semi-detached sleeve? Is the youth literally bursting at the seams? As usual, Pierre Rosenberg (1979) says so much in few words: Chardin wanted to convey a tendresse that he felt for young people, in that age when children were becoming perceived as more innocent than in previous centuries (except for specific religious infants, from which the model was derived). And the focus for parental concern, really not always that present in earlier centuries (R. Trumbach).

And not surprisingly, when Soap Bubbles was engraved, there were lines of interpretation added below it. To be brief, these lines sustain the meanings of the "emblematic legacy" that Professor Herbert (and perhaps Demoris) put in doubt. Soap bubbles were, indeed, still interpreted as "fragility of life" for at least some on the reception side. Perhaps not Chardin himself. Alas, there are reasons why art historians prefer to study the more complex programs in history, religions, mythological paintings; genre painting cannot sustain, often, endless interpretation of a single work. Only when placed in broader contexts — a painter's whole œuvre, other fine arts, and general cultural history — are the rewards truly great.

Remember that there are two persons in Soap Bubbles: one an adolescent, the other a child old enough to stand, or at least it would seem so. The translation of jeune garçon as "young man" (the first line of the lines in the Filloeul print) would certainly be correct if only the adolescent were depicted. But the presence of the younger child may put this interpretation into doubt. Garçon, yes, jeune homme, yes, but would one call the bubble-blower a jeune garçon, when a second, smaller young person is present? Could the moral be addressed to the little child, and not the adolescent? Certainly the child would not be old enough to understand the reference to the iris. But the adolescent — that is, the person whom (following Rosenberg) I call an adolescent — would he have understood the reference to the iris? (This writer is doing no better than Professor Herbert at staying on the side of the artist's intentions; he has bubbled over to reception!) In the Los Angeles Soap Bubbles the child's eyes seem focused on the bubble; in the Filloeul print they appear focused on the adolescent, or at any rate, not on the bubble. I lack clear illustrations to verify whether this is anything but a supposition. But if the exhortation in the lines on the Filloeul is to the child, not the jeune garçon, then his eyes might well be focused on the adolescent. In any event, there is little here to confirm the notion that this work is about reaching full adult maturity. One thinks of Beaumarchais-Mozart at this point: Cherubino giving a discourse on love, although his virility is not sufficient to move his beloved!

Not tenderness, but love, is what subjects felt for their boy kings, and the difference was more than one of degree. In love, the heart beat quicker, the throat closed somewhat, tears flowed. In tendresse, there was merely that pulling feeling of douceur inside, somewhere in and around the heart. There are several representations of Louis XIV as a boy king that merit comparison with the Rigaud Louis XV — but not the standing Louis XIV in coronation regalia. There is so much to say here, but I shall not say it.

Oh, Louis XIV's legs in the standing Rigaud: a lot has been written about them. Note in figure 7 that Louis XV's tutor is standing almost the same way as Louis XIV, as if starting a dance step. The tutor is reaching out as if to teach the king a step. I wonder if the work is mistitled. Could this be the old king himself ( but sans the cordon bleu that in many drawings distinguishes him from his courtiers), reaching out to his heir as he does in the great Largillière portrait in the Wallace Collection? There is something about this picture that evokes the old king: a study, perhaps from the previous decade.

To conclude. I return to what Professor Herbert says about 17th-century painting. So Rigaud's portrait of Louis XIV was not of the painter's making? Strict political protocols (p. 270)? It cannot be proved, but this historian believes that it was Rigaud who came up with the idea of the mace turned upside-down. Certainly this was not protocol, just to mention one point — and it beautifully complements the idea of the king's posture as that of a first dance step. Rigaud very probably pushed the protocols in an attempt to please the old king, and did so.

But to return to Chardin and to the prints made after him. Professor Herbert might look at Bosse's genre scenes of Parisian bourgeois society. The distinguishing features in Chardin's paintings — refracted from earlier Dutch-Flemish works — become more apparent, especially the quietude, the ineffability that is Chardin. Yes, there is a bildung, some sort of transfer from the spheres of religion and intimacy in private life, to a transcendental, universal presence of being. The Dutch, of course, had been there before, and "done that." Jacob Burckhardt called it "the quiet art of quiet enchantment" (L. Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, U. of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 386). Not the same as Chardin's tendresse, silence, and inner light emanating from the children's faces, but no translatio is without difference.