Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 16, 2013
Juliet Carey Taking Time: "Chardin's Boy Building a House of Cards" and Other Paintings London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2012. 160 pp.; 100 color ills. Paper £30.00 (9781907372339)
Exhibition schedule: Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, March 28–July 15, 2012

Taking Time: Chardin’s “Boy Building a House of Cards” and Other Paintings is the catalogue accompanying an exhibition mounted at Waddesdon Manor, the country house in Buckinghamshire, England, built in the nineteenth century for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Today the manor is run jointly by the National Trust and a charitable Rothschild Family Trust headed by Jacob Rothschild, 4th Lord Rothschild. In 2007, the trust purchased Jean-Siméon Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards (1735). Taking Time celebrates the arrival of Chardin’s painting to Waddesdon Manor, where it joins another famous genre painting by Chardin, Girl with a Shuttlecock (1737), on loan from the Rothschild Collection, Paris.

As Lord Rothschild notes in his foreword to the catalogue, this is the first time Waddesdon has organized an exhibition consisting of loans from other countries. The curatorial premise of the show was to display the Waddesdon House of Cards with Chardin’s other versions of the same subject belonging to the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This developed into an exploration of the topic of pairs, and so the exhibition also included a likely companion picture for the Waddesdon House of Cards, Lady Taking Tea (1735) from the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. The Hunterian Art Gallery also loaned their canvases of The Cellar Boy (1735/36) and The Scullery Maid (1738), which were hung alongside The Cellar Boy from a private collection (1736–38, no. 18) and The Scullery Maid from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (ca. 1738, no. 19). The catalogue reveals that in the early twentieth century this multiple of The Scullery Maid was in the collection of Henri de Rothschild and The Cellar Boy in the collection of Alice Rothschild. However, the most active collector of Chardin’s paintings was another Rothschild—Charlotte Rothschild—represented in the exhibition by a House of Cards (1737, no. 20) that Waddesdon curator Juliet Carey now describes as “an adapted replica by an unidentified artist,” not seen in public since 1959.

Taking Time, then, is limited to these eleven paintings by Chardin, augmented by the display of eight well-known reproductive prints made after Chardin’s genre subjects by Pierre Filloeul, Antoine Marcenay de Ghuy, François-Bernard Lépicié, and Pierre-Alexandre Aveline. In addition, Waddesdon Manor drew on its own holdings by including a humorous drawing of an elderly gentleman being groomed by Death while he builds a house of cards from the Livre de caricatures tant bonnes que mauvaises by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin.

Carey has written the catalogue’s twenty entries, as well as an introduction touching upon the themes of cards, servants, and repetition. In her essay “Chardin: On the Art of Building Castles” Katie Scott speculates on these themes in greater detail. The volume also features two essays on the Rothschild Chardins, one by Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy and one by Pierre Rosenberg, supported by four appendices documenting the collecting history of Charlotte de Rothschild and her grandson Henri de Rothschild. A fifth appendix, “Technical Notes,” furnishes the results of infrared examination, X-radiograph, and other laboratory tests of nine of the paintings in the exhibition.

The essays in the catalogue by Prévost-Marcilhacy and Rosenberg are fascinating. According to their research, Charlotte Rothschild amassed over twenty paintings by Chardin between 1870 and 1899. She hung most of these pictures in her painting studio, where she created watercolors highly regarded enough to be included in the Paris Salons of the 1860s and later decades. She bequeathed her Chardins to her grandson, Henri de Rothschild. Any scholar who has worked on Chardin has used the 1931 publication entitled Documents sur la vie et l’oeuvre de Chardin by André Pascal and Roger Gaucheron. Rosenberg’s essay reveals that André Pascal was a pseudonym for Henri de Rothschild, who was a scholar as well as a collector of Chardin. Henri de Rothschild complemented his grandmother’s Chardins with his own purchases of works by the artist. The most extravagant of these was Girl with a Shuttlecock, which he bought for 140,000 francs in 1905 (32, though Carey indicates it was in 1903 in her references on the provenance of the painting, 85), at a time when the top price for a Chardin hovered around 60,000 francs (appendix 1, 136).

Rosenberg is undeniably the world’s authority on matters relative to the authenticity and provenance of Chardin’s paintings. In addition to contributing an essay to this catalogue, he has also “appended a table listing the pictures in the Charlotte de Rothschild collection followed by a list of paintings from this collection that were for some time attributed to Chardin” (29). In his essay, Rosenberg relates the dramatic fate of the Rothschild Chardins during World War II. Girl with a Shuttlecock was seized by the Nazis from the Rothschild country house at Les Vaux de Cernay, “destined for Herman Goering’s collection” (32). Henri de Rothschild sent the bulk of his Chardins to England for safekeeping, where they were destroyed by a German bomber in 1942. Henri de Rothschild claimed thirty of his forty Chardins were lost at that time, a figure Rosenberg believes is exaggerated, though “the precise number of Chardins destroyed is hard to establish” (30).

One factor complicating the subject of Chardin’s oeuvre is his practice of painting multiples in order to meet the demand of collectors. The laboratory reports reprinted in appendix 5 detail pin holes along the edges of The House of Cards loaned by the National Gallery, London, a squaring-up “done with intention” of the painting “being reproduced” (147). In contrast, laboratory evidence, likewise reproduced in appendix 5, indicates that The House of Cards loaned by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, lies at the other end of this pole. The X-radiograph revealed no artist changes on this canvas; thus conservators conclude this painting “is the product of a model . . . well worked out in advance and is not a first attempt at a composition that the artist was not already quite familiar with” (148). In other words, it is a painting made from another painting. Evidently neither Charlotte de Rothschild nor Henri de Rothschild was bothered by the notion of multiples. She had two of The Scullery Maid (appendix 1, 136) in her collection of Chardins; he had three of The Draughtsman (32).

Nonetheless, what constitutes an authentic Chardin is a question posed—in different contexts and in different registers—throughout the catalogue. As Carey explains, it was for this reason The Scullery Maid from Glasgow was brought together with The Scullery Maid from the Corcoran Gallery, a work that some scholars, according to Carey, have considered a fake (131). Her comments will surprise art historians who saw the painting presented as an unquestioned Chardin in the 2003 Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting exhibition (no. 36). The catalogue poses this question of authenticity, but leaves it unresolved (with the exception of no. 20 mentioned in the second paragraph of this review). This was deliberate, I think, for Carey wanted beholders to take the time (alluded to in the exhibition’s title) to scrutinize the objects displayed on the wall. As only a reader of the catalogue (I did not see the exhibition), the value of her stratagem is impossible for me to assess. The catalogue, in any case, will interest museum professionals, scholars of the history of collecting, and art historians working in the field of French eighteenth-century art.

Paula Rea Radisich
Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Whittier College