The idle play of children was a favorite theme of Chardin who was a great naturalist among painters. In this canvas of about 1734 he drew inspiration from the seventeenth-century Dutch genre tradition, for both the format and the subject. While it is not certain that he intended the picture to carry a message, soap bubbles were then understood to allude to the transience of life. Other later versions of this picture belong to the Los Angeles County Museum and to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Although he was a member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture throughout his professional life, Chardin did not study at the Académie and had little if any traditional academic training in drawing from the model. He did not make preparatory studies for his canvases, upon which, according to contemporary reports, he worked slowly and with effort. His early still lifes include mostly inanimate objects: vegetables and fruit, dead game, hunting equipment, table- and kitchenware. It is therefore understandable that at first he was uncertain about painting the human figure, and even that he had to be teased into doing so by his friend, the portraitist Jacques Aved (1702–1766), as has been claimed.
According to the dealer and collector Jean Pierrre Mariette, writing some fifteen years after the fact, Chardin’s first figural picture showed a head of a young man blowing bubbles and was studied from a model. Eighteenth-century French taste for Dutch art of the seventeenth century, in which soap bubbles and other intimations of mortality abound, may have influenced Chardin’s choice, or he may have seen a painting by the Dutch artist Caspar Netscher (1639?–1684) of the same subject that reportedly belonged to Aved. However, assuming that the 1733 dates have been read correctly, Woman Sealing a Letter (Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin) and perhaps The Washerwoman (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) are earlier. The servant in the Berlin picture seems to be a younger version of the MMA bubble blower. One of the small figures in the Stockholm picture is a little boy seated, full-length, and gazing with great concentration at a soap bubble.
In 1739 Chardin exhibited a version of Soap Bubbles at the Paris Salon, but which version? The answer is probably none of the three that have survived, in the Metropolitan Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Two are horizontals, one, at the National Gallery, is a vertical, and there are slight differences among them. None is dated. The painting in Washington has been enlarged, while this one has been cut down. And although the Washington picture is an upright, it does not precisely match the engraving that Pierre Filloeul (1696–after 1754) surely made in 1739 after the exhibited work, which is assumed to have gone missing. The thick brushwork of the present canvas suggests that it is the earliest of the three that survive, and all may date to 1733 or 1734. It cannot be said for certain that the Metropolitan Museum painting originally had a pendant, even though it is likely, nor that it belonged until 1779 to Louis François Trouard, as the histories of ownership are difficult if not impossible to disentangle.
[Katharine Baetjer 2015]
Inscription: Signed (left, on stone): ·J·chardin
?Louis François Trouard, Paris (until 1779; his anonymous sale, Paris, February 22, 1779, no. 44, as "Deux tableaux pendans; ils représentent chacun un jeune garçon vu à mi-corps; l'un s'amuse à faire des boules de savon, & l'autre un château de cartes," canvas, 23 x 24 pouces, for Fr 95 to Dulac); ?Antoine Charles Dulac, Paris (1779–1801; his sale, Paillet and Delaroche, Paris, April 6, 1801, no. 19, as "Deux Tableaux . . . l'un représente un écolier qui fait des bules de savon; l'autre, une jeune fille qui fait lire enfant"); Jacques Doucet, Paris (by 1899–1912; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, June 6, 1912, no. 136, as "Les Bouteilles de savon," for Fr 300,500 [with no. 135, "Le Faiseur de châteaux de cartes," for Fr 190,000]); David David-Weill, Paris (1912–at least 1933; cat., 1926, I, pp. 25–26, ill.); Fritz Mannheimer, Amsterdam (until d. 1939); his widow, Jane Mannheimer, Amsterdam and New York (1939–49; held in Paris for Mrs. Mannheimer at Chenue; seized by the Nazis and "bought" May 12, 1944 through Posse and Mühlmann for Fr 800,000 for the Führer Museum, Linz; held at Alt Aussee  and at Munich collecting point ; returned to France, January 30, 1946, by the Service Français de la Récupération and restituted following agreement with SNK [Netherlands Art Property Foundation] in or after 1948; sold to Wildenstein); [Wildenstein, New York, 1949; sold to MMA]
Paris. Musée de l'Orangerie. "Les chefs-d'oeuvre des collections privées françaises retrouvés en Allemagne par la Commission de récupération artistique et les services alliés," June–August 1946, no. 10.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Diamond Jubilee Exhibition: Masterpieces of Painting," November 4, 1950–February 11, 1951, no. 47.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 130.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 68).
Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 51.
Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 51.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Chardin: 1699–1779," January 29–April 30, 1979, no. 61.
Cleveland Museum of Art. "Chardin: 1699–1779," May 30–August 12, 1979, no. 61.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Chardin: 1699–1779," September 18–November 19, 1979, no. 61.
Atlanta. High Museum of Art. "The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century," October 5–December 31, 1983, no. 47.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Masterpiece in Focus: Soap Bubbles by Jean-Siméon Chardin," October 18, 1990–January 20, 1991, unnumbered cat.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpiece in Focus: Soap Bubbles by Jean-Siméon Chardin," February 19–June 6, 1991, no catalogue.
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "Soap Bubbles of Jean-Siméon Chardin," June 30–September 2, 1991, unnumbered cat.
Athens. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. "From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," December 13, 1992–April 11, 1993, no. 30.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Chardin," September 7–November 22, 1999, no. 42.
Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf. "Chardin," December 5, 1999–February 20, 2000, no. 42.
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Chardin," March 9–May 28, 2000, no. 42.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chardin," June 19–September 3, 2000, no. 42.
Ferrara. Palazzo dei Diamanti. "Chardin: il pittore del silenzio," October 17, 2010–January 30, 2011, no. 30.
Madrid. Museo Nacional del Prado. "Chardin, 1699–1779," March 1–May 29, 2011, no. 30.
Copenhagen. Statens Museum for Kunst. "Closer: Intimacies in Art, 1730–1930," February 11–May 8, 2016, unnumbered cat. (ill. p. 113).
Lady [Emilia Francis Strong] Dilke. French Painters of the XVIIIth Century. London, 1899, pp. 114–15, notes that according to Mariette, Chardin's first genre subject was a "Youth blowing soap-bubbles," that "a very beautiful original" of this subject is in the collection of Jacques Doucet, and that the Goncourt brothers were familiar with another belonging to Monsieur Laperlier.
Lady [Emilia Francis Strong] Dilke. "Chardin et ses oeuvres à Potsdam et à Stockholm (premiér article)." Gazette des beaux-arts 22 (1899), pp. 181–82, ill. opp. p. 180 (engraving of our version by Henri Lefort).
Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siècle. definitive ed. Paris, 1906, vol. 1, p. 157.
Armand Dayot and Jean Guiffrey. J.-B Siméon Chardin avec un catalogue complet de l'oeuvre du maître. Paris, 1907, pp. 44, 46, 75, 90, no. 113, ill., identify the Doucet picture as the work exhibited at the 1739 Salon and engraved by Filloeul and Lefort, but claim that the version belonging to Trouard is with Monsieur David Weill.
Armand Dayot and Léandre Vaillat. L'oeuvre de J.-B.-S. Chardin et de J.-H. Fragonard. Paris, , p. iv, catalogue a version belonging to Mme Simpson and note that Doucet owns a repetition "en hauteur".
Herbert E. A. Furst. Chardin. London, 1911, p. 124.
[Émile Dacier]. "La collection Jacques Doucet." Revue de l'art ancien et moderne 31 (1912), p. 337, ill. p. 323.
Collection Jacques Doucet, deuxième partie: Catalogue des sculptures & tableaux du XVIIIe siècle. Galerie Georges Petit, Paris. June 6, 1912, p. 37, no. 136, ill., identifies this picture and the "House of Cards," sold as no. 135, as from the Trouard sale; records "à titre de curiosité" the verses on the Filloeul engraving, in which the ephemeral nature of soap bubbles is compared to the variability of a woman's love.
Gabriel Henriot. Collection David Weill. Vol. 1, Peintures. Paris, 1926, pp. 25–27, ill., comments on the difficulty of determining which of the variants was exhibited at the Salon of 1739 and believes David Weill's picture was probably in the Trouard sale.
Paul Jamot. "French Painting—I." Burlington Magazine 59 (December 1931), ill. p. 309.
Georges Wildenstein. Chardin. Paris, 1933, pp. 167–68, no. 135, fig. 20, catalogues six variants of the "Bouteilles de Savon," and considers ours to be the pendant to the House of Cards (no. 144, Oskar Reinhart collection, Winterthur) formerly in the Doucet collection.
Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre 1939–1945. Vol. 2, Tableaux, tapisseries, et sculptures. [Berlin], , p. 165, no. 3687, as in the possession of the Mannheimer heirs.
Francis Jourdain. Chardin, 1699–1779. Paris, 1949, fig. 30.
"Chardin and Steiglitz Collection Go to Met." Art Digest 23 (July 1, 1949), p. 11, ill.
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Boy Blowing Bubbles by Chardin." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (April 1950), pp. 221–27, ill. p. 222 and on cover (color detail), reproduces Filloeul's engraving after a "lost version" exhibited at the Salon of 1739; mentions others in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery, Kansas City.
Fritz Neugass. "Chardin: 'Der Junge mit der Seifenblase' (Ausschnitt)." Weltkunst 21 (March 15, 1951), p. 2, ill. (cover).
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 231, no. 130, colorpl. 130.
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), pp. 5, 39, ill.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 126–27, ill.
A. Hyatt Mayor. "The Gifts that Made the Museum." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (November 1957), p. 86.
Colin Eisler. "A Chardin in the Grand Manner." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (February 1960), p. 207, ill. p. 206.
Georges Wildenstein. Chardin. Zürich, 1963, pp. 150, 182, no. 75, fig. 35, suggests identifying this painting with "L'Enfant qui fait des bulles de savon," in the collection of Mme de Verrue in 1737; dates the MMA, Washington, and Kansas City pictures about 1731–33.
Georges Wildenstein. Chardin. Ed. Daniel Wildenstein. revised and enlarged ed. Greenwich, Conn., 1969, pp. 158, 190, no. 75, fig. 35.
George Mauner. Manet, Peintre-Philosophe: A Study of the Painter's Themes. University Park, Pa., 1975, pp. 134–35, fig. 78, describes Chardin's handling of this subject as "free of overt philosophical references".
Ronald Paulson. Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1975, p. 106, ill.
Pierre Rosenberg. Chardin: 1699–1779. Exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, 1979, pp. 76–77, 205–6, 208–10, no. 61, ill., dates it 1735, later than the version in Washington, which may not be the picture Mariette described in 1749 as Chardin's first genre painting; calls it probably the Trouard picture, but rejects identification of its pendant with the "House of Cards" in the Reinhart collection; mentions a version on the art market in New York; remarks that Chardin undertakes for the first time here the theme of early adolescence.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 361, 367, fig. 665 (color).
Albert Boime. Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision. New Haven, 1980, pp. 337–38, ill.
Norman Bryson. Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime. Cambridge, 1981, pp. 112–14, ill., notes that although many of the motifs in Chardin's genre subjects—the spinning top, the soap bubbles, the house of cards—are emblematic, their meaning in his paintings is always understated or ambiguous.
Eric M. Zafran. The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, pp. 102, 113–14, no. 47, ill. (color).
Pierre Rosenberg. L'opera completa di Chardin. Milan, 1983, pp. 91–92, no. 97, ill. p. 91 and colorpl. 17, publishes the three autograph versions and a copy of the first version, presumed lost.
Jean-Luc Bordeaux inThe Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, p. 15.
Joseph Baillio. "French Rococo Painting: A Notable Exhibition in Atlanta." Apollo 119 (January 1984), p. 17.
Philip Conisbee inMasterpiece in Focus: Soap Bubbles by Jean-Siméon Chardin. Exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, 1990, pp. 5–22, figs. 2, 27 (color), observes that none of the three autograph paintings shows any changes and concludes that all are based on a lost first version shown at the Salon of 1739; judging from the rich impasto and brushwork of the MMA painting, suggests that it follows Chardin's first version most directly; observes that in ways, "variously iconographic and formal, Chardin rethinks the traditional northern genre subject and invests the everyday with a hint of darker, more serious truths"; states that x-radiographs of the MMA version reveal "that it may have been cut substantially along the top and bottom" and also trimmed about one inch on the right.
Joseph Fronek inMasterpiece in Focus: Soap Bubbles by Jean-Siméon Chardin. Exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, 1990, pp. 23–25.
Philip Conisbee inThe Ahmanson Gifts: European Masterpieces in the Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, 1991, pp. 60–61, fig. 13a.
Marcia Kupfer. Soap Bubbles of Jean-Siméon Chardin. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1991, unpaginated brochure, figs. 1 (color), 9 (x-ray).
René Démoris. Chardin, la chair et l'objet. Paris, 1991, pp. 70, 84–87, 99–101, 153, fig. 11.
Michael Kimmelman. "Sharp Focus on an Unwavering Gaze." New York Times (March 17, 1991), p. H 35.
Deborah Krohn et al. inFrom El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exh. cat., National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. Athens, 1992, pp. 16, 308, no. 30, ill. (color) [catalogue section unpaginated].
Marianne Roland Michel. Chardin. Paris, 1994, p. 35 n. 35, pp. 66, 193, 233 nn. 14–15 [English ed., New York, 1996].
Pierre Rosenberg inChardin. Paris, 1999, pp. 234–35, no. 98, ill.
Pierre Rosenberg. Chardin. Exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts. London, 2000, pp. 174, 190, 208–10, no. 42, ill. (color), agrees that the three extant versions should be dated 1734, and that the version engraved by Pierre Filloeul in 1739 and exhibited in the Salon has been lost; believes the "Woman Sealing a Letter" (Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, dated 1733) is Chardin's first genre painting, and that the young man who is the model for "Soap Bubbles" appears in the Berlin picture.
Frédéric Ogée. "Chardin's Time: Reflections on the Tercentenary Exhibition and Twenty Years of Scholarship." Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (Spring 2000), p. 435.
Andrea Kirsh and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. New Haven, 2000, pp. 194–96, 279 n. 63, fig. 206.
James D. Herbert. "A Picture of Chardin's Making." Eighteenth-Century Studies 34 (Winter 2001), pp. 252–74.
Philip Conisbee inThe Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting. Ed. Colin B. Bailey. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. New Haven, 2003, p. 184.
Antoine Salomon and Guy Cogeval. Vuillard: The Inexhaustible Glance. Critical Catalogue of Paintings and Pastels. Milan, 2003, vol. 3, p. 1424, under no. XI-229, ill. (color, Vuillard's painting), mention that it is among pictures in the background of Vuillard's 1925 portrait of David David-Weill (private collection).
Joseph Baillio et al. The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. Exh. cat., Wildenstein & Co., Inc. New York, , pp. 54, 72, no. 30, ill., date it about 1731.
Christoph Martin Vogtherr inBoucher & Chardin: Masters of Modern Manners. Ed. Anne Dulau. Exh. cat., Wallace Collection, London. Glasgow, 2008, p. 30.
Philip Conisbee inFrench Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. Washington, 2009, pp. 65, 67–68 n. 8, fig. 1, under no. 12.
Eik Kahng. "La fin de l'émulation et la tyrannie du motif: De la copie à la série dans la peinture française de Chardin à Matisse." De main de maître: L'artiste et le faux. Paris, 2009, pp. 239–40, 242, 258 n. 2, fig. 66.
Jennifer Helvey. Irises: Vincent van Gogh in the Garden. Los Angeles, 2009, p. 174.
Pierre Rosenberg inChardin: il pittore del silenzio. Ed. Pierre Rosenberg. Exh. cat., Palazzo dei Diamanti. Ferrara, 2010, pp. 130–31, 160, no. 30, ill. p. 133 (color) [Spanish ed., "Chardin, 1699–1779," Madrid, 2011, pp. 134–35, 137–38, 171, no. 30, ill. (color)].
Juliet Carey. Taking Time: Chardin's "Boy Building a House of Cards" and Other Paintings. Exh. cat., Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire. London, 2012, p. 108, fig. 55 (color).
Mikkel Bogh. Closer: Intimacies in Art, 1730–1930. Exh. cat., Statens Museum for Kunst. Copenhagen, 2016, pp. 113–18, 287, ill. (color), sees the boy blowing the bubble as Chardin himself, "defying material necessities, defying the passage of time, defying inattention, defying the potential interruption from the younger child in order to immerse himself fully in forming this bubble," which he interprets as not only representing the transience of life but also as a metaphor for the work of the painter "to create . . . an entire miniature world of exalted moral significance".
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 297, no. 276, ill. pp. 261, 297 (color).
Yuriko Jackall inAmerica Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2017, pp. 296–97, reproduces a 1925 portrait by Vuillard of David David-Weill that includes this painting among those hanging on the wall behind him (p. 298, fig. 12; private collection).