Catalogue entry: The eighteenth-century French philosopher, writer, and art critic Denis Diderot (1713-1784), writing of the Paris Salon exhibition of 1765, exclaimed, "Welcome back, great magician, with your mute compositions! How eloquently they speak to the artist! How much they tell him about the representation of nature, the science of color and harmony!" Diderot's praise was for the formidable brush of Jean-Siméon Chardin, renowned in his own day as a painter of still life and humble genre scenes and today regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time. Painted as a pair, The Washerwoman and The Woman Drawing Water at the Cistern depict servants engaged in humble, domestic activities in the kitchen. In the former a woman scrubs laundry in a large wooden wash bucket. Chardin paints her in full-face gazing away from her work, as if something has distracted her attention—or more likely, as if she is captured in a moment of idle musing. The other composition features a woman, architectonic in form, her face hidden by her pose as well as her bonnet, stooping to fill a jug of water from a large copper urn. A glistening side of meat hangs from a hook above her. A second servant and a child are visible through a doorway. Both compositions, with their focus on domestic interiors and the effects of light on a variety of surfaces, owe much to seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Little, if anything, really happens in a painting by Chardin, be it still life or genre. His quiet images are easily perceived for what they are: an arrangement of inanimate objects or a figure or figures frozen in the act of performing some ordinary, routine activity. It is this skillfully contrived simplicity, along with Chardin's mastery of rendering the appearance of things—fabric, ceramic, glass, copper, meat, skin, stone, and liquid—that provoke the desire to linger in the presence of a Chardin painting.
Rights: Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott