On Copying Chardin


 Almost 20 years ago, while in graduate school in New York, I made a copy  of Chardin’s  painting, "Soap Bubbles", at the Metropolitan Museum.  I went there to work every week, and eventually arrived at some semblance of the painting. I hung it on my wall.  I continued to go to the Met, weekly, to look or to copy other pictures. Painting was slowly opening up to me then, and my frequent trips to the Met were adventures into a new world, a new language, which I was thrilled to explore. I had slept through many of my art history lectures in college, as memorizations  of names, dates and styles did not hold my interest.  But this was a new experience. I was now discovering these works on my own terms, and slowly developing my eye (or rather, my mind).  I would continue to gaze at and draw from the Chardin on these visits, and I gradually came to feel that there was much that I had missed in my first copy. Not merely in terms of “accuracy”.  What I had missed had more to do with feeling the deeper life of the painting.

In those ensuing years, over the course of many visits, things gradually appeared to me in the painting that did not exist before. There were visual rhymes that I had been unaware of when I made my copy (it feels awkward to put these into words, but for example, the relation between the shape of light on the boy’s forehead and its echo in the shape of the top part of the hat that the smaller boy is wearing.  The way that the soap bubble echoes the head of the smaller boy, which rises up from behind the ledge like a moon.). And so, about 5 years after the first, I made a second copy of the painting, in a new attempt to give reality to what I was now seeing and feeling.

I still keep this version on my wall, but I later noticed that there were still other things that I missed in this second copy. Again, it is very accurate in surface appearance, but when I look at the Chardin at the Met now, I am awed by its amplitude. It’s rhymes, its spaces – its internal logic –  deeply felt and brought to life in color.  For example, ( I must become awkward again - words are such blunt instruments) the perpetual dialogue between the dark triangle of space on the left side of the painting, and the lighter greenish triangle of space between the boys – and the sensation of space that this creates, even as the painting resolves back into a much shallower space when we focus back on the two boys.  Or the way that the plant on the left is an echo of the boy’s shoulder. And the apparent spatial orbit of three things surrounding the boy: the smaller boy’s head, the bubble, the glass.   The almost uncomfortably bright light on the boy’s forehead (previously I did not feel it, or feared its intensity).

My point is that I had painted these elements -  seen them, recorded them - in my first two copies, but they still eluded me, because I did not yet feel their reality. And so my copies, while accurate, lack the life-force, or spirit, of the original. It is one thing to recognize a relation. Quite another to feel it. Quite another to feel it deeply.

Perhaps the significance of all this is the discovery that the language of painting is indeed, deep, and great painting has a way of inviting us into its world, making us want to keep looking, and the more we look, the more we discover of the life and spirit that the artist put there. And then that life and spirit belong to us.

Chardin’s painting is one that, among many others, has served as a sort of passage into painting for me. But even as I think I have been able to see more into it,  it remains, like all great works of art, mysterious, and bearing an implicit promise that there is more within that is yet to be discovered.

David Bradford   2009