Chardin's Embroiderer ('L'ouvrière en tapisserie') and its pendant, The Young Draftsman ('Un jeune écolier qui dessine') seem to be among the artist's first genre scenes, datable to around 1733-1735. Only one pair of these compositions remains together, in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. That pair was commissioned from Chardin by Antoine de La Roque and was purchased at his estate sale by the dealer Edmé Gersaint for Count Tessin acting on behalf of the heir to the Swedish throne, Prince Adolphus Frederick (1710-1771). Chardin's genre paintings have remained in Stockholm since their arrival in the city in August 1745. The Swedish paintings are almost certainly the versions of the compositions exhibited by Chardin at the Paris Salon of 1738.
The two compositions were among the most popular the artist ever devised, and he is known to have replicated them often. Six almost identical autograph versions of The Young Draftsman have been accounted for, and four of The Embroiderer, although several of them are now known from photographs only. (Three versions of the Draftsman and two of the Embroiderer belonged to Henry de Rothschild and are presumed to have been destroyed in the bombing on his house in World War II.) At present, three versions of The Young Draftsman are known to survive (Stockholm; the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; private collection, USA; fig. 2), and only two versions of The Embroiderer (Stockholm, fig. 1, and the present painting). Chardin later revised the compositions in a larger format (32.5 x 19 cm.) that he exhibited in the Salon of 1759 and that were reproduced in prints by Flipart; those paintings have been untraced since the 18th century.
Both subjects represent tightly focused images of absorption, and Chardin crafted them with a degree of intensity and concentration to match his subjects. The young draftsman hunches over his portfolio, wielding his porte-crayon to copy in red chalk an académie that his master has pinned to the wall in front of him. His back is to the viewer and his face is turned away, but every aspect of his pose indicates his total engagement in the task at hand, one of the fundamental exercises of academic training. The embroiderer, on the other hand, is a domestic servant who sits in a rough, unpainted chair (a chaise à la Capucine), her embroidery stretched across her lap. She has just reached into her workbasket to select a ball of blue wool. The 1738 Salon entry makes clear that she is removing the wool from, rather than returning it to the basket: 'Un tableau représentant une Ouvrière en tapisserie, qui choisit de la laine dans son panier'. She wears a white apron and white bonnet; her scissors hang from a pink ribbon at her waist. Behind her is a table covered with a red carpet cloth, on which sits a combination pin cushion and pin box; against the table leans an ell -- a yardstick for measuring cloth and a traditional tool of the embroiderer's trade. Chardin's subject finds its origins in 17th-century Dutch genre scenes, such as The Embroiderer (circa 1670; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) by Caspar Netscher (1635-1684), but unlike Netscher's protagonist, who focuses with alert intensity to the task at hand, Chardin's embroiderer seems to pause in a moment of quiet reflection, eyes closed, lost in her own thoughts. Chardin's pendants contrast 'male' and 'female' activities, of course, art versus craft, the studio versus the home. They also contrast engaged absorption in one's actions with distracted absorption -- the interruption of work for a deep but momentary immersion in one's own inner world.
Beyond almost any of Chardin's other paintings, the various versions of The Young Draftsman and The Embroiderer have been celebrated for their remarkable if idiosyncratic painting technique. When the pendants were exhibited in the Salon of 1738, the Chevalier Neufville de Brunaubois-Montador wrote of them that "[Chardin's] manner of painting is all his own. It is not a case of finished outlines, nor of a fluid touch; on the contrary, it is brutal and rugged. It seems as if the strokes of his brush are exaggerated, and yet his figures are of a striking realism, and the singularity of his manner only makes them more natural and spirited." Denis Diderot (1759) would observe that "his touch is as broad in his little figures as if they had plenty of room. The breadth of handling is independent of the extent of the canvas and the size of the objects." Recently, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth noted that Chardin developed a distinctive, artisanal method of painting that included grinding his own pigments and adding chalk to his zinc whites, a unique techné that he kept secret and guarded jealously. (Diderot wryly observed that no one he knew had ever seen Chardin paint.) Echoing Brunaubois-Montador's assessment of Chardin's technique as 'brutal and rugged', Lajer-Burcharth observes that "drier, at times patchy, in places harshly rubbed in, elsewhere dragged across visible layers of underpainting, it is a touch that became Chardin's hallmark", adding, "you can almost hear the dry brush scraping the surface of the canvas, like a maid's hand scouring a pan" (2011).
No artist before Chardin, or since, has constructed his compositions in a comparable manner, and their dramatic and destabilizing effect when they were first exhibited in the Salon was captured by his friend, Charles-Nicolas Cochin in his life of Chardin (1780), when he wrote "Although in general his touch was not very agreeable and in a way rough, there were few paintings which could sustain themselves next to his, and it was said of him that that he was a dangerous neighbor".
Because Chardin painted a number of versions of The Embroiderer, all of approximately the same dimensions, it is difficult - if not impossible - to distinguish the 18th- and 19th-century auction records that might refer to the present painting from those that refer to other versions of the compositions. The history of the present picture becomes certain only in the early 20th century, when it was in the collection of Mrs. K.M. Taylor of London, who consigned it for sale in 1920 at Christie's, under the title 'Industry'. It went unsold (at 90 guineas) and was returned to Mrs. Taylor, who reoffered it at Christie's six years later, this time successfully, where it was purchased by the legendary dealer Joseph Duveen for £252. Shortly thereafter, Duveen sold it to the Honorable Irwin Boyle Laughlin (1871-1941), who served as American Ambassador to Greece in Calvin Coolidge's administration and Ambassador to Spain under Herbert Hoover. Laughlin was a distinguished collector who amassed a celebrated group of French drawings by Watteau, Boucher, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, and especially Fragonard that he hung in Meridian House, his Washington residence built in 1920 by John Russell Pope. (On the National Register of Historic Places, Meridian House today is home to the Meridian International Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting international understanding.) After Laughlin's death, his collection went to his widow, Therese, and following her death in 1958, to their only child, Gertrude Laughlin Chanler; the drawings collection was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art upon Mrs. Chanler's death in 1999. Ambassador Laughlin bought few paintings, which were of a small scale to mix easily with his drawings, but in addition to the Chardin there was a lovely oil sketch of The Visitation by Fragonard (circa 1774; the Collection of Hélène and Jean-François Costa, Musée Fragonard, Grasse).
The present painting is recorded in the 1920s auction catalogues as being on a wooden panel, like the other known versions of the composition and its pendant. It was transferred to canvas after the 1926 sale, probably while it was with Duveen.