Boucher versus Chardin

Chardin Woman taking tea

Chardin Woman taking tea

The Wallace Collection in London is a dream come true for any lover of 18th century art, and worth a long, leisurely visit. Or rather make it many long, leisurely visits.

Now, about the current exhibition there, titled Boucher and Chardin: Masters of Modern Manners. The first thing that surprised me was its size: it fits easily in two rooms in the basement. Don’t expect any in-depth exploration of the works of the two French masters.

The first room is dedicated to the sudden popularity of tea in wealthy households in the early 1700s. We have a display of various teapots, a Hogarth painting of a family taking tea, and various books on the supposed medicinal virtues or health dangers of the beverage.  It is far too little for a tea afficionada like me, and what does it have to do with Boucher or Chardin?

Boucher lady on daybed

Boucher lady on daybed

Well, the exhibition purports to be focused on two French paintings, Chardin’s Lady taking Tea (above) from the Hunterian in Glasgow and Boucher’s Lady on a Daybed from the Frick in New York. The latter painting shows a teapot, used as a decorative object, on the shelves.

The connection between the two paintings is tenuous, and Boucher and Chardin are so different in their skills and subjects that the juxtaposition of their works is more jarring than intriguing.

There is also a painting by Lancret of an aristocratic lady in morning dress (meaning bare-breasted) serving tea to a rather distracted cleric. This disproves the assertion, made earlier in the exhibit, that the French, unlike the English, appreciated tea solely for its healing properties. This odd couple has nothing medicinal in mind.

Chardin  Cellar boy

Chardin Cellar boy

Otherwise, the exhibition includes a few, very few paintings by Chardin and Boucher, but what paintings! No, Boucher is not, as alleged by a dyspeptic art critic, a “peddler of soft porn.” There is nothing lewd about the Lady on her Daybed. Whether or not it represents Boucher’s wife (the Frick says so, the curators of the exhibition disagree) it is remarkable, and I spent a good ten minutes in front of it.

But the Chardins are amazing. In Lady Taking Tea, the red lacquer of the table stands out against the dull greyish-beige background, strangely shifting the emphasis to the subdued lady. Is she Chardin’s ailing wife, pondering the frailty of human existence and the prospect of approaching death?

Chardin’s subjects don’t look at us, or even in our direction. They are often pensive profiles, absorbed in the quiet dignity of the most menial tasks. Chardin suffuses everyday life with understated emotion. He is a worthy successor to Rembrandt, and his Cellar Boy brings to mind the power of Watteau’s Gilles and eerily anticipates some portraits by Soutine.

The works on display are of such extraordinary quality as to make us forget about the dubious scholarship and disjointed purposes of the exhibition. If you happen to be in London this summer, by all means go see it.

The Wallace Collection, London, until September 7, 2008.

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