The Beauty of Jugs, Water and Fruit
Woman Taking Tea, 1735, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Marcel Proust and Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin were both Frenchmen, but that is the only immediate parallel that would have come to me before reading Alain de Bottom’s elegant “self-help” book How Proust Can Change Your Life. In the “How to Open your Eyes” chapter, he elaborates on a point Proust once made, that a man desirous of rich things should look not at grand paintings of palaces but humble still lifes by the painter Chardin to cure his dissatisfaction. This seems a riddling aesthete’s answer to natural desires for wealth and beautiful things. And in fact, Proust’s article was turned down, perhaps partially because it seemed to suggest in its extreme that everything could be beautiful if you looked at it the right way. It also suggests something that many an art lover might make a small step, if not a great leap, toward appreciating: our ability to appreciate life can be mediated by art, we can understand through art pieces of life that would otherwise seem senseless, and by extension aesthetic experience is a way of creating meaning in our lives.
Copper Drinking Fountain, c. 1735, Musée du Louvre, Paris
How could Chardin, a still life painter, have such an effect as all that? Specifically, Proust wrote that on this young bourgeois Parisian’s next trip to the Louvre, instead of looking at the palaces of Veronese, he should instead head to a different wing of the museum, where he would see pictures that would remind the young man of the scenes of everyday life he had just thought to escape. The result would be:
Once he had been dazzled by this opulent depiction of what he would have 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?
Proust’s implied answer is yes. Chardin’s humble still lifes would illuminate the young man’s conceptions of life with hertofore unnoticed colors and textures, and that upon returning home he would become aware how lovely the sunbeam falling on his glass of water was.
Still Life with Plums, 1730, The Frick Collection, New York
But is art really responsible for a transformation as large as that; that a poor man could look at humble images and be taught to see the beauty in his ordinary, unappreciated life once an artist has drawn attention to its aesthetic qualities? De Botton suggests that rather than making anything appear beautiful, proper contemplation might instead show us how to appreciate the true value of something, and that we often discount the familiar unfairly. That is where the artist’s work, with its ability to highlight qualities we ignored, open our eyes to our experience, and make us re-think our preconceptions, comes into play. Aesthetic experience is both a pleasure and an end in itself, and also a means of experiencing the world through another’s nuanced and unique vision. It’s a way to know more than can ever be encompassed within a single life.
What would Chardin have thought of all this? Chardin was self-taught, from the same bourgeois background that Proust and his imagined young man sprang from. The exquisite master of the still life genre was unusual in his realism—called naturalism at the time and unique in its prosaic subject matter of crockery, apples, and fish. These have never been glamorous objects, not even in the 18th Century, and he paints such scenes with a warmth and immediacy that suggests great love, and many years of looking with an intense, appreciative gaze. Attributes of Arts is a departure from his typical subject; it displays tools of the painter, architect, and sculptor, as well as an award. It has much of the immediacy and skill of his other works, but it is a complicated composition full of stark whites that appears harsh. One suspects—rightly—that these aren’t objects that the artist’s eyes have lingered over—they were conventional symbols being re-used for him as they had been by many other artists. While Chardin depicts them, he doesn’t transform our experience of them, and he never paints them again.
The Silver Goblet, c.1760, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Apples occur again and again, and he brings to them something not seen again until Cezanne. Neither Proust nor Chardin argue that humble or common are qualities of value in themselves—but they do suggest that these qualities too often disqualify things from the merit of beauty in our eyes—to our own detriment.
Basket of Strawberries, 1761, Private Collection
Maybe that young man needed a Chardin. Maybe most of us would be a little happier if our humble, messy kitchen tables spoke to us of beauty. Maybe no end of aesthetic experiences can turn very real, prosaic ones from being anything but dirty and humble. But to some degree perception is a choice, and we can choose to find beauty in the everyday.
Linnea West writes about contemporary art, culture, and travel–all subjects she feels passionately about. She lives in New York City–except for those times when wanderlust gets the better of her. This happens often. Fortunately her laptop travels well. She is finishing her first novel.