The words used to describe the paintings of Chardin – gentle, tender, graceful – are not commonly applied to Lucian Freud. They were, on the face of it, artists of polar opposites: unlike Freud, who seemed only to paint the penniless or the peeraged, Chardin was a great chronicler of the middle classes. Where Freud delighted in the morbid passage of time, Chardin gave us children engaged in the leisures of youth. His subjects were delicately described, with skin of buttermilk to Freud’s lard, those unflinching, yellow-grey swathes of flesh that belonged more properly to abattoir and butcher’s block.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin – ‘The Schoolmistress’ (National Gallery)
Where the two converge is as painters ‘of the Great Indoors’, to steal a phrase from Julian Barnes; as composers of interior spaces. ‘The Young Schoolmistress’, painted around 1736, is among Chardin’s most elegant constructions of space and light. When Freud was asked in 1987 by the National Gallery to make an ‘Artist’s Eye’ selection of works from its collection, it featured prominently on his shortlist.
Chardin’s title suggests a wry observation of his subject: the titular ‘Schoolmistress’, not a professional tutor, but an ingénue sister teaching her sibling in a scene of roleplay. Freud thought her to have the most beautifully painted ear in the history of art, and over a span of two decades found himself drawn repeatedly to this image of innocence. ‘The feeling is true,’ he remarked to the author Michael Kimmelman, during a private, out-of-hours tour of the gallery: ‘Generally, when we talk about feeling we mean deep feeling. This isn’t deep; but it is true.’
Freud’s ‘After Chardin’ oil painting, produced in response to ‘The Schoolmistress’
When the National Gallery approached Freud again in the late ‘90s, asking him to produce a painting in response to the collection which would later be shown in an upcoming millennium exhibition, it was ‘The Young Schoolmistress’ to which he turned once more. Freud made two paintings – one larger, one smaller – before committing himself, as he often did with favourite subjects, to a complementary pair of etchings.
Etching bookended Freud’s career. In the late 1940s he made his very first copper plates in a Paris hotel, baptising them in acid in the bathroom sink (‘One dip. Really quick and dangerous.’) Graham Sutherland – an early, and ultimately unsuccessful mentor – took notice of Freud’s efforts and offered him his own etching tools, with the suggestion that he hone his craft. But Freud had little interest in technical paraphernalia: etching was, for him, a means of liberation, much like drawing, and Sutherland’s advice was sourly rejected. It was not until 1982, some 34 years later, that he returned to the medium.
Like many of Freud’s etchings after paintings, ‘After Chardin’ was reproduced directly onto the plate in front of the canvas, reversing the original image. Certain details were omitted – the missing stylus pin, for example – while significant changes include the vigorously textured background, full of quivering movement where before there was soft light. He tended to crop his etchings, often uncomfortably close (some plates were even purposely cut down after being etched), which here has the confronting effect of placing us directly in the tableau. In Chardin’s original, it as if we have intruded on a domestic scene; in Freud, we are sat at the table itself.
‘In doing so’, writes the curator William Feaver, ‘he moved the heads closer together and accentuated their features, his touch being more robust than Chardin’s…The child became less amenable and the girl, his sister presumably, more bossy.’ Freud, with typical waspishness, put it rather more succinctly: ‘Such intellect as there was in her, I left it out.’
Sumptuously printed by master printer Marc Balakjian, the copy illustrated here – owned by (and dedicated to) Freud’s framer of 20 years, Louise Liddell – was just one of twelve proofs produced for the edition (a second, small-plate version was also issued, comprising a detail taken from the Schoolmistress’ face). It stands among those late, great etchings which ushered in the final chapter of his career, in which flesh and cloth are somehow conveyed, through etched line, with the hoghair heft of his very best work with the brush.