A solemn little boy is shown in profile leaning over a card table, absorbed in the delicate art of placing a playing card flat on top of four upright cards that form the walls of his fragile construction. He is oblivious to the world around him. Although his mind is fully occupied, he cannot be said to be thinking. He works in silence, unaware that we are watching him and therefore at his most natural, most vulnerable.
Painted in 1735, the first version of Jean-Simon Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards was acquired by the Rothschild Family Trust in 2007. It is now the centrepiece of a small but near-perfect exhibition at Waddesdon Manor, where it hangs alongside three slightly later variants of the composition on loan from the National Galleries of London and Washington and from the Louvre. To move among four treatments of the same subject is to become absorbed in Chardin’s pictorial world, to enter into his creative process. The difference between the textures of a rough and a finely woven fabric; the appearance of a five-year-old boy as opposed to one of seven; whether or not a child’s hair has been dressed and powdered – nuances such as these can change a picture’s mood or meaning.
In the Rothschild version, the boy is wearing an apron, indicating that he is a servant or apprentice. The playing cards, coins, and gambling counters scattered on the table indicate that a game of cards has finished. Sent to clear up after the adults, the boy instead allows himself to be distracted by his game. Though a dawdler, he’s still too young and innocent to be tempted by the coins that he could easily pocket.
Any representation of a house of cards in art symbolises the fragility of life, and prints after the Boy Building a House of Cards contain moralising inscriptions telling us not to mock the foolish pastime, for we too build castles in the air. But these inscriptions are not the work of Chardin. I see no narrative, no symbolism, and no overtly political or sacred content in this picture. In fact, Chardin goes to enormous trouble to divest it of such extraneous values. This single-minded focus on purely visual problems is what made him such a hero to Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Jasper Johns. For the essence of his art is to allow each of us to bring our own thoughts and feelings to the scene. His pictures aspire to a condition of emotional neutrality.
There could be no better example than this painting, in which Chardin set out to paint something that artists usually do their best to avoid – an expressionless human face. French academic theory as formulated in the 17th century held that the distinction between high art and mechanical representation is the artist’s ability to convey emotions through facial expression. But in Chardin’s picture the boy’s emotional responses, like his thoughts, are temporarily on hold. Likewise, the soft light from the window at the left circulates around the objects in the room without bringing any one object into more prominence. This is why I have always been puzzled by one detail: the swag of curtain with a golden tassel in the foreground at the left. This seems to come from a different moral universe from the one we encounter in Chardin’s pictures – the world of pomp that you find in baroque portraiture or religious painting. Since it does not appear in any of his later treatments of the subject, what is its function here?
My answer is that it is used to draw our attention to the picture plane closest to the viewer. Chardin draws our eye into pictorial depth via a succession of receding planes, beginning with the open drawer just behind the curtain and continuing with the eye-catching playing card that he uses as a bridge from the front of the drawer to the table surface. In this first attempt at the subject, Chardin used the swag of cloth to help him work through a particular formal problem. Once he had resolved that problem, it was no longer necessary.
Chardin hit on one of the few figure subjects involving children in which the absence of movement or expression would look completely natural. You could almost describe Boy Building a House of Cards as a human still life. Look at how the geometry of the picture (the vertical wall at the left, the horizontal table edge in the foreground, the diagonal created by the boy’s back) rhymes with the careful construction of horizontal, vertical and diagonal shapes that the boy is making with the cards. And notice that both the house of cards and the table are slightly angled so that they are out of alignment with the picture plane: the composition is precisely mirrored in the house of cards because Chardin saw painting as a craft requiring the same manual dexterity and mental focus as the boy needs to make his house of cards stand up.
Chardin is a painter of the Enlightenment: he was not like Cézanne, working out aesthetic and intellectual problems as ends in themselves. One of the most enchanting pictures in this show is a portrait of the son of a close friend; others were painted as pendants to already existing pictures. It looks to me as though Chardin solved practical problems as they arose.