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Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin was a famous 18th-century French painter, known mainly for his works depicting images of people performing everyday tasks: reading, playing, blowing bubbles, etc. However, among Chardin`s vast oeuvre, one work stands out from the rest for its abnormal subject. The Monkey Painter differentiates itself from the other paintings by portraying a monkey painting, instead of a human. By changing the subject of the painting, Chardin changes the themes of the painting from an appreciation of play and learning to criticism and self-deprecation.
I believe that, through this painting, Chardin is trying to convey the idea that any artist, including himself, that imitates another artist, instead of painting from their own creativity, is not a real artist. In this paper, I will be examining the historical context around this painting and Chardin`s own comments about the painting to support the claim made above, as well as, examining the metaphorical and philosophical interpretation of the painting.
Upon first glance at the painting, the question that enters the viewer`s mind is: “Why would Chardin choose to paint a monkey?” The monkey may be a reference to the 17th century Dutch and Flemish sub-genre of paintings that would depict monkeys performing human acts, often having humorous and mocking tones behind them.
Chardin, who was well aware of 17th century Dutch and Flemish culture, would know about the implication of portraying a monkey performing human acts in a painting. So, Chardin is trying to make fun of artists. The monkey is also depicted painting a posing figure; he is duplicating what he is seeing before him, making an imitation of the figure with paint.
I believe that Chardin is using this to represent painters that simply imitate other painters and make significant amounts of money doing it, hence the lavish, gold-trimmed clothes that the monkey is wearing. He is criticizing artists that would make a living imitating, or copying, the work of another artist, saying that they are like a monkey, a symbol of humor and mockery in Chardin`s eyes.
Chardin, himself, further supports this claim with his caption of the painting: “The monkey, a mimic exact or less true/ is a very ordinary creature/ And such a man on earth is the painter of one/ who serves the other as a model.” Chardin blatantly says that the monkey is a mimic, something that imitates something else, and an ordinary creature, one with no natural talent, or above-average skills. He also mentions that the real artist, “the painter”, is the one with the real talent and skills. Their talent is so coveted, in fact, that lesser artists, the “monkeys”, would base their art on the real artists, and in this way, the real artists “serve the other as a model”. Through his caption, Chardin is saying that a true artist is one that relies on their own talent whereas a fake artist mimics the art of others, due to their own lack of talent, thereby turning themselves into a figurative monkey.
But why is Chardin choosing to criticize artists that imitate other artists in the first place? One possible reason may be that Chardin has a deep respect for painting and wants to see it flourish with new ideas, instead of having the same ideas be recycled over and over again, causing the creativity in painting to diminish. Another possible reason is that Chardin was criticizing the way young artists were being taught. In Chardin`s time, The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculptures was in control of all teaching and exhibition of art in France. The Royal Academy implemented strict standards for teaching all new artists in France and many feared that this authoritarian approach to education would lead to a generation of artists that would only paint in one way and imitate their peers, causing all of them to create the same piece of artwork. Chardin, who was a well-educated painter and ended up joining The Royal Academy, would have been well aware of these criticisms and may have painted The Monkey Painter as a warning: “If The Royal Academy keeps teaching these young artists one way to paint, they will become well-dressed monkeys, painting and selling only what they see, with no originality.”
Yet didn`t Chardin borrow the idea of using a monkey as the subject of his painting to mock someone from 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Culture? Could that not also be seen as imitation? I believe that Chardin did this on purpose to show that even a great artist, such as himself, could fall victim to being a “monkey”. Chardin finished his apprenticeship and became a master painter in 1724. The Monkey Painter has been dated back to the early 1720s, which implies that it was one of Chardin`s first paintings. At the time, Chardin was an unknown painter trying to make a name for himself. He may have painted The Monkey Painter to gain the attention of elite art collectors by using an art form from the last century and criticizing many artists, including himself. It shows both his artistic knowledge and that even a master artist can be a “monkey”. It may also be a reference to his membership in The Royal Academy of Paintings and Sculptors, who were enforcing the standards that turned young artists into “monkeys”. Chardin, who would become a high-ranking member of The Royal Academy, maybe showing that he is complicit in enforcing the harsh standards and is warning others not to follow in his example.
All of that being said, how does this interpretation differ from the interpretation of Chardin`s other works? As stated above, Chardin became famous for painting people performing everyday tasks. Chardin’s paintings do not tell an overarching story, instead of showing one scene of a person performing an everyday task, such as a boy playing with a top, a man setting up a house of cards, or a philosopher reading, all tasks that can be repeated. The metaphorical and philosophical implications of these scenes are that people can learn through the repetition of play and artwork. Play, such as playing with a top or building a house of cards, and artistry, such as painting, open people’s minds to new concepts and ideas. Through repetition, these new concepts and ideas are built upon and expanded, eventually forming new skills, otherwise known as learning. Take Chardin’s painting Boy with a Top, which depicts a boy standing at a desk and playing with the top, as an example. As the boy watches the topspin, he is noticing new things about the top: how it spins, how after a while it starts to falter, and how it eventually falls over. After the top falls over, the boy presumably picks up the top and starts to spin it again. Each time the boy spins the top, he learns new things about it eventually leading him to the optimal way to spin the top, thus both enjoying and learning from the activity. Another way that Chardin emphasizes the connection of playing and learning through his paintings is the way he paints them. His paintings depicting the play, Boy with a Top, and his paintings depicting learning, such as A Philosopher Giving a Lecture, are painted in very similar ways. The lighting and vibrant colors used are identical. The facial expressions of each person in the paintings, which are also similar, show that they are both completely immersed in their respective craft. By contrast, The Monkey Painter differs from these paintings in several ways. Though it is still a painting depicting action and uses many of the same lighting and coloring techniques, the monkey is looking away from the canvas, towards the viewer. This shows that the monkey cannot be fully immersed in the art and therefore is not learning from it. Also, as Chardin stated, the monkey is a mimic; it only copies what it sees and does not retain the greater meaning behind it. I believe that Chardin is using this painting as a metaphorical and philosophical antithesis to his other paintings, showing that if one is not fully immersed in the play, or the art, that they take part in, they cannot possibly learn from it.
In conclusion, Chardin’s The Monkey Painter is a criticism of painters that imitate other painters, calling them “monkeys”, which is a reference to 17th century Dutch and Flemish art. By calling these artists “monkeys”, Chardin is implying that they have no real talent and only get rich off of painting what they see. The painting may also be a criticism of The Royal Academy of Paintings and Sculptors, saying that the strict education standards that they imposed on the painters are inhibiting their creativity and turning them into “monkeys”. Chardin could also be acknowledging his own faults in this matter by burrowing the concept of the monkey from 17th century Dutch and Flemish art and considering his own membership to The Royal Academy. By changing one major aspect of his signature style, Chardin changed the interpretation of this painting from the appreciation of play as it relates to learning to criticism of artists and a warning for the future of art in France. Chardin also changes the metaphorical and philosophical meaning of the painting from learning through play to mindless copying with no retention.
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