Jean Siméon Chardin’s The Cut Melon — a spellbinding work by the ‘great magician’

Chardin was the pre-eminent still-life painter of his day and would go on to inspire Manet, Matisse and Cezanne. This masterpiece from the Rothschild family collection is offered in Paris on 12 June

Jean Simeon Chardin, Le Melon entame, 1760, offered in Maitres Anciens: Peintures - Sculptures on 12 June at Christie's

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Le Melon entamé, 1760. 22 7/16 x 20¼ in (57 x 51.5 cm). Sold for €26,730,000 on 12 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Jean Siméon Chardin didn’t travel far during his 80 years. He was baptised — and twice married — in the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris’s 6th arrondissement, an area he inhabited for most of his life. He barely left the French capital, apart from when invited for an audience with King Louis XV in Versailles.

Artistically speaking, too, Chardin stuck firmly to what he knew. He specialised in still-life painting, a genre in which he’s acknowledged today as an all-time master. Collectors of his work included not just his own monarch, but also foreign ones — such as Catherine the Great — plus royals, aristocrats, ministers and ambassadors from across Europe. Count Carl Gustaf Tessin of Sweden said ‘pictures by Chardin are something to go on your knees before’.

On 12 June 2024, one of the artist’s most remarkable paintings, Le Melon entamé (known in English as The Cut Melon), is being offered in the Maîtres Anciens: Peintures — Sculptures sale at Christie’s in Paris.

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Le Melon entamé, 1760 (detail). The composition is so perfectly calculated that one can’t imagine adjusting the position of a single object without diminishing the whole

Completed in 1760, it depicts a marble tabletop on which Chardin has arranged two pears, three plums, a reed basket of peaches, and a cantaloupe from which a large slice has been cut. That slice balances on the melon’s open cut. On the far left are two corked bottles of liqueur, and on the right a water pitcher and its basin.

The Cut Melon was among Chardin’s submissions to the Paris Salon of 1761. Like the painting it was paired with — Jar of Apricots (today found in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto) — it was lent to the exhibition by its first owner, Jacques Roëttiers, goldsmith to the king.

Both works stand out for their unusual, oval-shaped canvases. Chardin was around 60 when he created them, yet seems never to have painted in such a format before (and would only do so once or twice again). In the case of The Cut Melon, the shape of the canvas complemented the subject matter: everything in the picture is rounded.

Jean Simeon Chardin, Jar of Apricots, 1758, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Jar of Apricots, 1758. Oil on canvas. 22½ x 20 in (57.2 x 50.8 cm). Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. This painting was paired with The Cut Melon at the Paris Salon of 1761. Photo: © Fine Art Images / Bridgeman Images

Each piece of bulbous fruit rests and balances against another. The two bottles and the pitcher bulge and curve at the bottom. The basin in which the pitcher sits is low and round. Even the marble table isn’t straight-edged — it arcs towards us.

So perfectly calculated is the play of curves overall that one can’t imagine adjusting the position of a single object — especially the precariously balanced slice of melon — without diminishing the whole.

Chardin was born in 1699, the son of a cabinetmaker who specialised in billiard tables. In his teens, he apprenticed to two history painters, Pierre-Jacques Cazes and Noël-Nicolas Coypel. Initially, he aspired to become a history painter himself, gaining admittance to Paris’s Académie de Saint-Luc.

He soon realised, however, that this grand and venerated genre was not for him. Nor was he interested in the ornamental fantasies of the era’s most popular style, the Rococo — with its light-hearted, sexually liberated treatment of mythological and courtship themes.

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Le Melon entamé, 1760 (detail). The gently modulated, blended brushwork conveys a sense of something eternal

Chardin was his own man, and realised that his gifts lay in the genre of still life: in tabletop depictions of fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, pots and crockery. It was a genre that, at the time, was much less well established in France than in places such as the Netherlands.

This had certainly changed by the late 19th and early 20th century, when the likes of Manet, Cezanne, Bonnard and Matisse — all keen admirers of Chardin’s — took to producing still lifes. (‘I often go to the Louvre,’ Matisse said in 1913. ‘I mainly study the work of Chardin there’.)

Chardin’s career fell, broadly speaking, into three distinct periods: an early and a late period dedicated to still lifes, interrupted by a brief spell from around 1734 to 1750 in which he chiefly produced genre scenes of everyday life (featuring subjects such as kitchen maids and washerwomen).

Jean Simeon Chardin, Fruit, Jug and a Glass, circa 1726-28, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Fruit, Jug and a Glass, circa 1726-28. Oil on canvas. 13 3/16 x 16 15/16 in (33.5 x 43 cm). Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Cut Melon dates from the third period, and Chardin’s manner of rendering objects has moved on noticeably from his first. Though executed with typical accuracy and planning, early still lifes such as Fruit, Jug and a Glass (circa 1726-28) are painted freely in broad, unblended brushstrokes. The effect is of unmediated spontaneity. In works from late in his career, by contrast, such as The Cut Melon, Chardin achieves something different.

He employs gently modulated, blended brushwork, which conveys a sense of time stilled — of something eternal, monumental even. That brushwork adjusts itself throughout, as the artist moves from one surface to another. The textured skin of the cantaloupe, for instance, is rendered in rough, dry layers of chalky pigment, while the orange-coloured flesh of the thinly brushed melon seems almost moist.

Jean Simeon Chardin, Self-Portrait with a Visor, 1771-81, The Art Institute of Chicago

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Self-Portrait with a Visor, 1771-81. Pastel on blue laid paper, mounted on canvas. 18 x 14¾ in (45.7 x 37.4 cm). Clarence Buckingham Collection and the Harold Joachim Memorial Fund. The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The provenance of The Cut Melon is also worthy of note. Its owners after Roëttiers included François Martial Marcille (1790-1856), a one-time seed merchant who went on to amass the greatest collection of Chardins ever assembled. Marcille was responsible for resurrecting the artist’s reputation in the mid-19th century, after he had been largely forgotten in the preceding decades. Following the death of Marcille’s son, the painting was acquired for Baroness Charlotte de Rothschild in 1876 — and has remained in the Rothschild family ever since.

Unlike many still-life painters of his day, Chardin didn’t do symbolism. In his oeuvre, a peach is simply a peach, a melon a melon. There’s no religious allegory. According to many of his enthusiasts over the years, however, one shouldn’t take his paintings wholly at face value.

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Chardin exhibited at almost every Paris Salon from 1737 until 1779 (the year of his death), receiving consistently enthusiastic reviews from Denis Diderot, the eminent art critic and philosopher. In one review, Diderot labelled Chardin a ‘great magician’; in another, he called his paintings ‘so magical as to induce despair’ — despair both for an artist trying to match them, and a critic trying to explain them.

Fast-forward to the 1860s, and the sibling art critics known as the Goncourt brothers wrote that ‘never… has the material fascination of painting been developed so far as by Chardin, who transfigured objects of no intrinsic interest by the sheer magic of their representation’.

Starting to spot a trend? Chardin’s art has frequently been described in terms of magic. To a certain extent, he seems to have invited that description himself. The artist was renowned for taking considerable time over each painting, and for refusing to let anyone see him work. A magician never likes to reveal his tricks.

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