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The Morning Report - 3/18/20 | Main | The Morning Rant
March 18, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Chardin Governess.jpg

The Governess
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

It’s tough to classify Chardin’s style. Depending on who you ask, he is either Rococo or not. He is sometimes classified in a pseudo-movement called “Natural Art”, while some classify “Natural Art” as really a sub-movement within Rococo. Whatever it is, Natural Art revolts against the vapidness of the French Rococo and elevates the lower, poorer classes, lifting them up as the true nobility—of character rather than title. Chardin helped shift the focus of art’s subject matter from aristocratic self-indulgence and lofty allegories to scenes depicting the lower genres with quiet images of common, everyday life and morality. Some of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment would praise these artists for their efforts to reform base society through their art.

In this work, Chardin uses the size of the room, its decor, and the costume on the boy, to show the viewer that the family this governess works for is quite wealthy. The room is still pretty empty however. There are no paintings on the wall, no wallpaper, no rugs, but is instead filled with toys—playing cards and a racket. This is the boy’s playroom. By keeping the background items small and simple, Chardin allows the viewer to instead concentrate on work’s focus—the governess.

The form of the governess begins at the vertical center-line and dominates the entire right half of the work. She is the largest, the lightest, and the brightest form in the painting. She sits and leans forward to look the boy square in the eyes. Her facial expression tells us is not scolding but gently talking to the boy about something important, and the boy respectfully listens. What I think she’s saying is revealed by the juxtaposition of images. The boy is dressed as an adult but is surrounded by toys. He looks to be about 6 to 8 years old—old enough to start understanding responsibility. He will have responsibilities in that family one day and he needs to start learning them. He has left his toys all over the floor and the woman firmly but lovingly reprimands him about the mess. Meanwhile, she is also getting the boy ready to go out. The door in the background is open, waiting for him to exit the playroom into the adult world. She has dressed him in his finest suit and is brushing off his hat. She may even be giving him some final instructions on what is expected beyond the door.

Chardin uses color to focus on the woman. The palette is browns, tans and grays, with just small, scattered dots of blue. The woman’s costume is the only white in the entire painting. The light source is above the boy but points to her, making her glow. That the light source is off canvas, it almost looks like a light from heaven. This gives her an angelic presence, a purity, and her advice becomes divine wisdom. Under her apron, the rest of her outfit almost matches the colors in the boy’s clothes. This links them and makes them stand out from the dank background.

It’s also interesting how the lighting shines on the boy’s face, too. Chardin makes sure we can see the two faces and read each expression—one earnest and the other humble. This is also interesting because it reverses their social station—the humble servant is giving direction to her social superior. In addition, the woman is older; her hair is gray. She has the wisdom of age (and maybe experience) to back up her words.
In this work, Chardin is reversing the ideas of nobility and social roles. In this society, nobles rarely raised their own children; they hired people to do so, and these servants, in many cases, became the real parents to these children. Chardin is portraying an ideal situation where a virtuous woman has the opportunity to raise a moral and honorable generation of social leaders, who would then go on to better society for everyone—unlike the one Chardin was living through.


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