Beautiful like a Chardin
Post #1376 • July 31, 2009, 9:01 AM • 16 Comments
Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life:
To escape his domestic gloom, if he couldn't catch the next train to Holland or Italy, the young man might leave the flat and go to the Louvre, where at least he could feast his eyes on splendid things: grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbour scenes by Claude and princely lives by Van Dyck. Touched by his predicament, Proust proposed to make a radical change to the young man's life by way of a modest alteration to his museum itinerary. Rather than let him hurry to galleries hung with paintings by Claude and Veronese, Proust suggested leading him to a quite different part of the museum, to those galleries hung with the works of Jean-Baptiste Chardin. ...
...in spite of the ordinary nature of their subjects, Chardin's paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was as pink and chubby as a cherub, a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality. A skate, slit open an hanging from a hook, evoked the sea of which it had been a fearsome denizen it its lifetime. It's insides, coloured with a deep red blood, blue nerves and white muscles, were like the naves of a polychrome cathedral. There was a harmony too between objects; in one canvas, almost a friendship between the reddish colors of a hearthrug, a needle box and a skein of wool. These paintings were windows on to a world at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting. After an encounter with Chardin, Proust had high hopes for the spiritual transformation of his sad young man.
Once he had been dazzled by this opulent depiction of what he called mediocrity, this appetizing depiction of a life he had found insipid, this great art of nature he had thought paltry, I should say to him: "Are you happy?"
Why would he be? Because Chardin had shown him that the kind of environment in which he lived could, for a fraction of the cost, have many of the charms he had previously associated only with palaces and the princely life. No longer would he feel painfully excluded from an aesthetic realm, no longer would he be so envious of smart bankers with gold-plated coal tongs and diamond-studded door handles. He would learn that metal and earthenware could also be enchanting, and common crockery as beautiful as precious stones. After looking at Chardin's work, even the humblest rooms in his parents' flat would have the power to delight him, Proust promised:
When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself, this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.
Having started on his essay, Proust tried to interest Pierre Mainguet, the editor of the arts magazine the Revue Hebdomadaire, in its contents.
I have just written a little study in the philosophy of art, if I may use that slightly pretentious phrase, in which I have tried to show how the great painters initiate us into a knowledge and love of the external world, how they are the ones "by whom our eyes are opened," opened, that is, on the world. In this study, I use the work of Chardin as an example, and I try to show its influence on our life, the charm and wisdom with which it coats our most modest moments by initiating us into the life of still life. Do you think this sort of study would interest the readers of the Revue Hebdomadaire?
Perhaps, but since its editor was sure it wouldn't, they had no chance to find out.