Saturday, September 05, 2009

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #2 - Soap Bubbles

Soap Bubbles, ca. 1734, Jean Siméon Chardin (French, 1699–1779), Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was not born into a monied, aristocratic family and did not have access to a formal education in art. He was largely self-taught and considered himself a successful still life and genre painter. He did exhibit his work regularly at the Salons and had a supportive group of patrons. Because he painted simple scenes of typical households, people and animals, his work was embraced by people from different social strata. He sold print reproductions of his paintings which also allowed people of different socio-economic levels to have access to his art.

Soap Bubbles is a simple genre scene that is simple in its composition and color palette. You can see the influence he had from the Dutch Baroque painters. There is something voyeuristic about this painting - a young man is absorbed in the bubble that he is blowing. As it grows bigger and bigger, a small boy peeps over the windowsill, watching with excitement and wonder the act of bubble blowing. When was the last time YOU blew a bubble? Remember the opalescent colors that swirl on the surface? Isn't it interesting (and comforting!) that centuries later, we still find this activity fun and entertaining? Blowing a REAL bubble is not something your iPhone can do! Virtual bubbles are just not the same!

What may not be so obvious on the surface of this painting is the direct portrayal of social class. It was the wealthier patron that could afford to purchase an original oil painting. The elite patron had an interest in having a simple life scene which showed a moment that any social class would have enjoyed displayed in their home. But this young man is not from an affluent class. Though he is groomed and clean, his clothes do not fit him and show signs of wear. His jacket sleeves are too short and it is torn at one shoulder. This image illustrated a moment in the lives of those beneath them in class and rank, and it was something they enjoyed viewing. Interesting - so much in common (the joys of blowing bubbles) and yet also worlds apart (money and privilege).

Soap bubbles are so fragile, we know how delicate and fleeting they are! This image can represent the fleeting nature of life, so the viewer could consider the image on more than one level. Michael Levey has written about Chardin's genre paintings from his book Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting, "Chardin refers us back to ordinary experience, concentrating it with almost microscopic intensity, tingeing it with the hint of the moral and educative, yet still not telling any specific story."

Self Portrait, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1771, Pastel on paper, 46 x 37.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

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