The Academician Julien Green said of Chardin’s painting ‘it never could lie’ (J. Green, Œuvre complètes, 1993, III, pp. 1348-49). In a century that saw a certain frivolity at the height of fashion, Chardin’s calm, quiet, meditative works eschewed the seductive art of the age. Chardin responded to Natoire’s ribbons, Nattier’s silent smiles, to van Loo’s colourful myths and the unashamed eroticism of Fragonard with young children praying or playing cards and with simple offerings from the hunt or harvest. He preferred the simplicity of a private life to great opulence. As Pierre Rosenberg wrote: ‘he wanted to be of his time, but it eluded him’ (P. Rosenberg, ed., Chardin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1999, p. 27).
During his lifetime, Chardin’s still lifes were the most sought-after of his paintings. He submitted two of these (La Raie and Le Buffet) as his reception pieces to the Academy, where he was accepted as a ‘painter of animals and fruits’ (P. Rosenberg, Tout l’œuvre peint de Chardin, Paris, 1983, p. 83). This epithet seems very reductive for the artist who supplanted those Dutch and Flemish masters, to whom he began by being compared, as the pre-eminent still-life painter of his age.
Chardin declared: ‘So that I am not only focused on reproducing reality, I must forget all that I have seen, and equally the way in which others have treated these objects’ (quoted in P. Rosenberg ed., Chardin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1979, p. 109). His quest was to be the reinvention of nature, to depict it in the most original way he could. Despite his grand ambition, Chardin could not completely escape the tradition that had helped to form him. The Rembrandtesque elements of this hitherto unpublished early work are proof of this; the modernity of the Amsterdam painter finds echoes in Chardin’s painting. It is impossible not to think of Still life with two peacocks and a young girl when looking at the present work (fig. 1; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Here the same meditative feel can be perceived, though while Rembrandt draws attention to his hunting trophies through the inclusion of a young girl, Chardin sets this motif aside, focusing his full attention, and that of the viewer, on the trophy alone. The technique used here is also reminiscent of Rembrandt. Painting with vigorous brushstrokes, Chardin created a soft, rich texture, punctuated with bright impasto. He was not afraid to break up his composition by playing with his colour placement. The blue used in the hare’s muzzle is repeated at the satchel strap, and the red blood – picked out on the tied-up legs – is found again in an abstract stroke at the edge of the canvas. This loose approach, which stands out from the brown background, seems almost to have been painted in the spirit of Impressionism.
The engraver Charles Nicolas Cochin recorded that: ‘One of the first works he [Chardin] created was a rabbit […] he wanted to depicted it with the greatest verisimilitude in all ways, though with taste, without any suggestion of slavish adherence to the subject that could have rendered it cold and dry. He did not try to capture the fur. He felt that it was not necessary to give it too much importance or try to depict its every detail’ (cited in P. Rosenberg, op. cit., 1999, p. 116). Until now, this reference has been linked with Deux lapins avec gibecière et poire à poudre currently in a private Parisian collection (fig. 2). Because nothing else comparable was known, Pierre Rosenberg understood that painting as Chardin’s first work, dating it to pre-1728 (P. Rosenberg ed., Chardin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1979, p. 141). This date was arrived at by comparing Deux lapins with the dated 1728 still life, Chardin’s earliest dated example of the genre, in the Karlsruhe museum, which is used as the keystone for ordering the artist’s earliest works (fig. 3). However, it is possible that Cochin was referring to this recently rediscovered and until now unpublished painting, since the description corresponds very closely. The account displays the engraver’s wonder at Chardin’s genius of colour over line, and this painterly still-life could only date to the beginning of the artist’s career.
Various characteristics can be used to group these paintings from Chardin’s early period. All three are marked by the absence of any extraneous elements, focusing attention on the animal itself, and by a restrained palette with a restricted chromatic scheme, showing the marked influence of Rembrandt. At the same time, these early works are defined by intense experimentation with composition. The table, the base of the composition, was often placed at a slant, an indication that the artist was more concerned with the main subject, not wanting this to appear ‘dry and cold’ to echo Cochin. Equally, at the start of his career, he often left his many revisions clearly visible, tipping the works into a state of elegant abstraction with his strokes, hesitations and retouchings. For instance, the hunting satchel in the present painting is barely visible, whilst that in the Deux lapins has been placed to the right of the rabbit after numerous revisions, makings its position wonderfully unstable, as if it has only just been completed. The present work was clearly a pivotal work in Chardin’s early development and may even be understood as a carefully considered sketch for the Parisian painting.
Chardin wanted to forget all he had seen and leave a new art for posterity, far from the dogmas of his day. The generations of painters who followed him would not forget his talent or the audacity of his creations. Despite their modesty, Chardin’s works were held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries and those who came later. More than a hundred years later, Edouard Manet recalled the lessons Chardin had taught in his still life Lapin, in the Angladon Museum in Avignon. The same brown background, the same majestic silence of the rabbit on the table, even the hunting satchel is repeated. Manet’s signature, written in in brown at a diagonal, seems to be a final homage to the hesitant signatures of the earlier artist.
Though seeming to escape the hustle and bustle of his time through the calm of his art, Chardin’s work does exhibit another aspect of his day, the pursuit of knowledge, experimentation and creativity without limits, which led later generations to call it the Age of Enlightenment.