Jean-Siméon Chardin, the son of an artisan, was born in Paris and died there shortly after his eightieth birthday. Until 1757, when Louis XV granted him a studio and living quarters at the Louvre, he lived on the Left Bank near Saint-Sulpice, within walking distance of the Seine. He rarely left his native city, never going farther afield than the royal châteaux of Versailles and Fontainebleau. Chardin's first wife, Marguerite Saintard, died young; he was survived by his second wife, Marie-Françoise Pouget. His two daughters died in early childhood, while his only son, Jean-Pierre, who had been destined for a career as a history painter, seems to have taken his own life at the age of forty-one.
In 1728, upon presentation of The Ray and The Buffet (Musée du Louvre, Paris), Chardin was admitted to membership in the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. A dedicated academician, he regularly attended meetings for fifty years and served successively as counsellor, treasurer, and secretary. In 1761 he took charge of the installation of the biennial Salon exhibitions, where he had participated regularly since 1737. He was presented to Louis XV in 1740 and gave him two genre paintings, The Diligent Mother and Saying Grace. The king granted him a pension of five hundred livres in 1752. The eighteenth-century Académie sanctioned a declamatory style of public art in which history painting, encapsulating the noblest human ideals and aspirations, ranked supreme. The lesser categories were portraiture, genre painting, and still life. While he had served apprenticeships with the history painters Pierre-Jacques Cazes (1676–1754) and Noël-Nicolas Coypel (1690–1734), Chardin was accepted by the Académie in 1728 for his proficiency in the least of these categories—for his paintings of animals and fruit.
Chardin was secretive about his methods. No one saw him painting; he had no pupils or followers. He seems to have worked slowly, in a style that is evocative rather than literally descriptive. He made few, if any, preparatory drawings. His contemporaries observed that his still lifes—which at close range read as a flurry of strokes—have a startling immediacy and naturalism. He captured household and family routines and children at play in genre scenes that are poignantly true to life. These were engraved and claimed the imagination of a wide public. Small in scale and modest in subject matter, Chardin's paintings are incomparably vivid. His work has long been admired by artists and critics alike.
In the 1730s, he painted half-lengths, usually representing children, and explored genre subjects that portray eighteenth-century bourgeois life. In these paintings, Chardin ennobles domestic tasks—capturing the quiet meditation of a kitchen maid, the simple act of making a cup of tea, or the innocent play of a child. The industrious subject of The Washerwoman (1733, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) conveys moral propriety while the depiction of a soap bubble alludes to the transience of human life. Among the genre paintings, additional highlights of the exhibition were the Metropolitan's own celebrated canvas, Soap Bubbles, (ca. 1734), Girl with a Shuttlecock (1737, private collection), and The Governess (1739, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). These pictures are remarkable for the studied harmony of their pictorial structure.
The exhibition also includes a selection of late still lifes in which Chardin finds balance in the seemingly haphazard arrangement of objects. Vase of Flowers (ca. 1755, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Basket of Wild Strawberries (1761, private collection) and Three Apples, Two Chestnuts, Bowl and Silver Goblet (ca. 1768, Musée du Louvre, Paris) are works of consummate simplicity. Chardin captures the bloom of flowers and the ripeness of fruit, reflections on a silver surface, and the refraction of light through water.