Perspective | A still life by Chardin at the Frick is a breath of fresh air

Why is it that, when you wander through an art museum and come across a still life by Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), you begin to breathe differently? Perhaps because the very air in Chardin’s paintings is different.

Everyone knows that tap water tastes different in different locations. In one place it might be tart, metallic or heavily spiked with pungent chlorine. In another, it can be velvety, full, perfectly slaking. It’s the same with the air in paintings. And no painter’s air is better to breathe than Chardin’s.

To stand in front of one of his uncannily calm and self-possessed still lifes after navigating galleries of shrieking, show-offy masterpieces is to remember that art’s presumed connection with grandeur — with vast museums, wealthy and powerful owners, and rhetorical overkill — is fallacious. Chardin, who painted an average of only four or five paintings a year, makes the case that the best art is anchored by understatement and modesty. He was an artist who reveled in reticence.

This still life is at the Frick Collection in New York (temporarily transferred to Madison Avenue while the old building is renovated). It shows a shallow basket piled with plums, a bottle, a glass of water and two melons on a tilted tabletop that has a crack at the left. The man-made items are ordinary — there’s no fancy porcelain or pewter. Yet it’s clear that all the objects in the painting have been carefully arranged — they didn’t just happen to find themselves in this configuration.

Chardin would often divide the objects in his still lifes into three groups. Here, we can think of the plums as one entity, the glass and bottle as another, and the melons as the third. As with a three-legged stool, there’s a simple, satisfying stability to the arrangement. It helps steady the table’s tilt, which in turn stops the composition from being tediously symmetrical.

Within that basic structure, all kinds of promiscuous interactions subtly unfold. The middle unit is, of course, two items — and we can’t help noticing how they contrast. Where the bottle is dark and almost opaque, the glass of water in front of it is transparent. On the right, meanwhile, the precariously balanced melons encroach on this central duo, their knobbly, green-and-yellow skins — so different from the bottle and glass! — creating a colored refraction in the clear water.

Over on the left, one plum has spilled out into a pocket of space in front of the basket, and this is so obviously deliberate that it may prompt us to philosophical reflection. (How do parts relate to the whole? Where do different things belong?) Even if we remain in the realm of mere aesthetics, we can’t help but register the color relations (how the purple plums with their dusty sheen, for instance, inflect the yellow-green melons) and the picture’s five distinct kinds of roundness.

Of course, the really marvelous thing with Chardin is that, when you get close, you can see more or less how it’s all done. The painted marks are open enough for to you feel the drag of his brush. And it’s this, as much as Chardin’s subtle orchestration of texture, tone and color, that creates the feeling of air around his objects (and around the painting itself). It’s air you want to breathe.

Denis Diderot, the great encyclopedist and art critic, noticed how people “stop as if by instinct in front of a Chardin, as a traveler weary of the road chooses almost unconsciously a place that offers a grassy seat, silence, water and cool shade.” He wrote that in the 18th century. Amazing that it’s still true today.

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