Chardin was born in Paris in 1699, the son of a master cabinet-maker. He trained under the history painter Pierre-Jacques Cazes and had ambitions to follow in his footsteps by becoming a painter of altarpieces and grand mythologies, the highest rank in the hierarchy of official painting. According to Mariette, Chardin failed in his ambition, “however much he desired it.” By 1724, he had entered the Académie de Saint-Luc, the Royal Academy’s less distinguished rival. Chardin’s earliest biographers, including Mariette and Charles-Nicolas Cochin, recount that the young painter first showed an interest in still life when the history painter Noël-Nicolas Coypel asked him to paint a “gun in the portrait of a man dressed as a hunter.” Chardin quickly realized just how difficult it was to achieve in painting truthful effects in the rendering of light and color as they appear in nature, and this “attempt led him to certain reflections which made him into what we have seen ever since.” “I must forget everything I have seen and even the manner in which such objects have been painted by others,” Chardin himself said of his earliest researches in still life painting. “I must place [my subject] at a distance where I no longer see the details. Above all, I must strive for proper and utterly faithful imitation of the general masses, the color tones, the roundness of shape, and the effects of light and shadows.” He quickly realized that although thwarted as a history painter, he might find a more congenial career in the specialized field of still life. Within a few years, Chardin had become a master of the genre, specializing in kitchen and hunt still lifes.
Popular success followed almost immediately, and the artist seemed to have devoted himself almost exclusively to the creation of still lifes until about 1733 when, perhaps fearing that the critics and public would soon tire of his intense studies of humble kitchen utensils, he abruptly took up a new genre: figurative compositions of contemporary domestic life, to which he seems to have dedicated himself – once again, almost to the exclusion of any other work -- for the next fifteen years. It was only around 1748 that Chardin would reintroduce still life into his repertoire, launching a second great period of still life painting, which he would pursue and refine until his death in 1779.
Chardin was admired by his contemporaries above all other painters, and critics – then as now – acknowledged that his art transcended the quotidian matters that it depicted. In contrast with the luxurious tastes of the 18th century, the paintings with which Chardin first made his reputation were small, modest still lifes, such as the present lot. This kitchen still life, dating from around 1730, reproduces humble objects from everyday life with startling realism. In an indefinite but atmospheric interior suggestive of a kitchen, Chardin has elegantly arranged along a stone ledge or table with great deliberation a copper pot, mortar and pestle, some eggs. All of the elements of the composition are lit from the left, and the distorted reflections of the eggs can be seen reflected on the side of glazed ceramic pitcher. The work is signed on the lower left along the side of the stone ledge.
Despite the apparent casualness and simplicity of this representation of mundane elements, Chardin has in fact arranged them with great artistry into an eloquent and moving composition of unexpected monumentality. The composition instills the banal subject matter with timeless grandeur and poetry, while Chardin’s brush magically evokes the soft, moist texture of the vegetables, the cold shimmer of copper, the uneven scumble of a rough stone wall. The warm palette of the painting is dominated by a wide-range of subtly different shades of brown, green and other earth tones, enlivened with surprising touches of orange, yellow, red, and white. In rejecting the prevailing tradition in French still life painting of depicting settings of the greatest lavishness, costliness and opulence – a tradition that reached an apogee in the still lifes of Desportes and Oudry -- Chardin invented a new still life painting that has the immediacy, clarity and timelessness of great art and strikes a modern chord. In Chardin’s paintings the simplest of objects emerge from the delicately modulated half-light with poetic monumentality: perfect compositions of timeless, classical equilibrium are nevertheless charged with emotion. “Who has expressed, as he has expressed, the life of inanimate objects?” asked Jules and Edmond de Goncourt (1864).
Chardin mediated long on the development of his compositions and, when he felt that one was perfected, he was very happy to repeat it. The present composition exists in at least three versions: Rosenberg and Temperini record an unsigned version once in the celebrated collections of Eudoxe Marcille, which was sold in Paris (Hôtel Drouot, 25 November 1998, lot 33) and later in London (Christie’s, 7 July 2000, lot 56); another version that appeared at auction in Paris (Hôtel Drouot, 14 April 1988, lot 12); and the present painting. Without making a side-by-side comparison of other versions, it is impossible to know the order in which they were executed, but the present painting is without question the finest and best preserved of those known today.