As is often the case when trying to sort out the history of Chardin's works, the task is complicated by the fact that he repeated many of his best compositions.The Monkey Painter and The Monkey Antiquarian are known through more than a dozen canvases some of which survive, some of which are lost but engraved, and several of which are lost but recorded, in addition to a number of presumed copies by other hands (see P. Rosenberg & R. Temperini, Chardin, suivi du catalogue des oeuvres, Paris, 1999, pp. 199, 232-233, for the most up-to-date list of the various versions).
The subjects were exhibited in the Salon of 1740, and three years later P.L. Surugue fils published engravings of them. Interestingly, the print after The Monkey Painter is inscribed with the date '1726' on the simian artist's portfolio of drawings, suggesting that the engraving was made from a painting that Chardin had executed 17 year earlier. No version of the composition bearing that date is known today, although the present version does carry a teasingly indistinct date, and judging from the style of both of the present lots - with their broad, thickly impasted, almost coarse brushwork - they should be assessed very early works by Chardin, executed no later that the mid-1720s. Mitigating against the present paintings being the pair that Surugue reproduced is the fact that they are in a painted-oval format, while the prints - and most known versions of the subjects - are rectangular. Indeed, aside from the present pair, only a single version of The Monkey Antiquarian (in the Louvre, which acquired it in 1852 having come from the Barroilhet collection in 1848) exists in this inscribed oval format. It seems certain that Chardin repeated the compositions over many years: while the present pair and the Louvre Monkey Antiquarian share the loose handling that is sometimes found in the artist's earliest works, other versions of the subjects - notably the smaller (28.5 x 23.5 cm.), very beautiful pair in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres - appear to date from the mid-1730s and later. The present lots were possibly the paintings with the Paris dealer Higgins in the early 1950s, which share the same measurements with the present pictures and were said to have come from the Ropiquet sale in 1840 (see P. Rosenberg and R. Temperini, Chardin: suivi du catalogue des oeuvres, Paris, 1999, under nos. 94-95b, p. 233, where the authors cite the Higgins pictures, which may or may not be the present works, as follows: 'Nous mentionnons pour memoire les versions très médiocres de Lille, du Petit Palais à Paris, d'une vente chez Christie's le 26 juin 1926, no. 143, et chez Higgins à Paris en 1952.'; more interesting, perhaps, is the question of whether they were the two oval monkey pictures by Chardin in the sale of the Duke of Hamilton on 6 September 1819, lot 7?
Chardin rarely painted overtly comic or satirical works, so the monkey subjects are exceptional in his oeuvre, despite the fact that the numerous versions of each would indicate that there was a demand for such subjects among the artist's collectors. In fact, the first decades of the 18th century in France saw a widespread vogue for singeries, or decorative schemes with monkey themes. Certainly, Chardin, who loved Dutch art of the previous century, would have known the comical monkey paintings of David Teniers and his contemporaries when he took up these themes himself, but an even more pertinent model came from one of Chardin's most admired predecessors at the French Academy, Antoine Watteau, who had himself painted a Monkey Painter and a Monkey Sculptor early in his career (c. 1710; the first lost and known through an engraving; the second, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans). Indeed, the dark brown background, autumnal palette, and broad paint handling of Watteau's Monkey Sculptor might have directly influenced Chardin's conception of his ownsingeries. The fact that both Watteau and Chardin - two of the most refined painters in the history of Western art - adopted a willfully broad manner of execution in their respective monkey paintings suggests that this manner was in and of itself regarded as comic by contemporaries and therefore more appropriate to the subject matter than the artists' usual, suave style.
Chardin's two paintings affectionately mock the habits and pretensions of artists and collectors alike but, characteristically for Chardin, he still allows his subjects - in this case capuchin monkeys - a natural dignity of their own. The apes are carefully observed and rendered, as are all of the details of the artist's studio and collector's cabinet that they unexpectedly but quite comfortably inhabit. In case the satirical point was not clear enough, Surugue's prints included verses by Chardin's close friend, the poet Charles-Etiénne Pesselier, explaining that the Painter is a mere mimic - or monkey - if he models his work on that of other artists rather than Nature, while the Antiquarian Collector who spends his life buried in the past would be wiser to look up from his medals at the fascinating century unfolding around him.