Monkey as Painter

3:09 PM

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Monkey as Painter, 1740

I chose this painting because to me it seemed a little different from the rest of Chardin’s work. Chardin’s works may flaunt his talent for painting rich color and positioning his objects beautifully in space, but to me his work has always felt a little dry. I admired his talent, but I couldn’t spend hours looking at his paintings. Then I found this hilarious painting of a monkey carefully outlining what looks like a portrait. Clad in typical painter's garb and standing next to his painter’s equipment, Chardin’s monkey looks unnervingly human. Its haunting eyes stare back at the viewer plaintively. I can’t get over the eyes—they give the monkey intelligence, which for some reason makes it way funnier. Aside from being hilarious, this picture actually appeals to me on a compositional level as well. Chardin was a master of the art of painting, and he used his talent here. The brushwork around the monkey’s head in particular blows me away. The amount of detail he gets out of the fur on the monkey’s face seems impossible given the rather few brush strokes he uses.

Although painting a monkey as a painter deviates dramatically from Chardin’s typical still lifes and domestic scenes, Chardin’s hallmarked style shines through. In particular, the lighting is typical of Chardin—light does not seem to come from a specific source. The painting seems illuminated from within. Chardin forgoes the dramatic lighting present in paintings by past masters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio for a quieter feel. His paintings feel calm—the studios, tables, and kitchens he paints seem inviting and warm. I am not sure how I feel about this. At a passing glance, his works seem pleasant enough to look at—the proportions fit nicely and the colors are beautiful. But to me, at least, his paintings seem to grow flat after a while. I cannot stare into one of his paintings and feel absorbed like I can the works of some of the great old masters. However, Chardin may not have objected to this. He painted in the enlightenment, and his works represented a move away from emotional religious scenes towards the cold rationality of the enlightenment. The flat emotion this painting and its brethren give off may signify a calculated choice to prefer science over the fires of torment or the light of salvation.

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