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'La gouvernante' (The Governess)

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (Paris 1699 – Paris 1779)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

circa 1738

Materials

Oil on canvas

Measurements

457 x 381 mm (18 x 15 in)

Place of origin

Paris

Order this image

Collection

Tatton Park, Cheshire (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Card Room, Tatton Park, Cheshire, North, National Trust

NT 1298184

Caption

The prime version of this picture (1738: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) was called La gouvernante, when it was exhibited and engraved in 1739. The term could mean housekeeper — which is what her apron and work-basket suggest — as well as governess, and the picture is the first of those in which Chardin depicts protagonists of higher social status. This would appear to be the autograph replica that was first recorded in the posthumous sale of Watteau's friend, Antoine La Roque, editor of the Mercure de France, in 1745. It seems to have featured in a London auction five years later.

Summary

Oil painting on canvas, 'La gouvernante' by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (Paris 1699 – Paris 1779), signed, above middle panel of left door: chardin. An autograph replica by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin of the picture formerly in the Liechtenstein Collection and now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, signed and dated 1738. A full-length portrait of a woman, a governess, seated in an interior holding a brush and hat, a young boy, blushing, is standing on the left and there are toys, playing cards and racket and shuttlecock on the floor in the foreground.

Full description

"Chardin always preferred depicting women to men, and children to adults. What he wishes to convey, he does less by the expression that he gives to the faces -which varies little - or by the look - an indefinable combination of abstraction and attention - of his characters, than through the stance and posture of their always quite immobile bodies. Avoiding both sentimentality and story-telling, Chardin - better than any other painter - gives expression in paint to that tender but pure dialogue that takes place between adult and child" . In these words, Pierre Rosenberg has come as close as anyone to seizing the essence of Chardin's quietly compelling pictures of women and children, which are amongst the most appealing of his entire oeuvre. In this particular composition - which, as he points out, was the first in which Chardin depicted, not a housemaid occupied in some task or a child alone, but a woman of higher social status (as Cochin fils had already noted), in actual dialogue with a young boy - the seated gouvernante, who has put aside her workbasket to brush his tricorn hat (that perfect pretext for the still-life painter), breaks off from the task to address him, most probably with a reprimand. The boy, who is evidently off to school - his parcel of schoolbooks under his arm, his shuttlecock, battledore, and playing-cards abandoned on the floor - stands respectfully in front of her, as if listening to what she has to say, but actually inscrutably lost in his own thoughts. The room in which this takes place, which it would probably be an anachronism to call a nursery or schoolroom (just as an 18th-century French gouvernante was subtly different to an English 'governess'; the word also had the meaning of 'housekeeper' - which is, too, what her apron, workbasket, and task of brushing clothes here suggest), has a fine parquet floor à la francaise, but plain, old-fashioned panelling, rather than up-to-date boiseries, upon the walls. The chair that the gouvernante sits in, though richly upholstered, also harks back to the previous century; as does the tapestried room beyond, glimpsed through the half-open door. The most modern note is struck by the curvilinear table à quadrille, or gaming-table, of the kind on which, in other pictures, Chardin's children so often build their houses of cards (the use to which - from the folded shape of one of them - the cards here have also obviously been put). All in all, it is a little difficult to determine whether this combination of richness with unfashionability expresses the general character of a solid bourgeois interior, or just that of the kinds of room to which children and upper servants were relegated when on their own. Even critics of the Salon of 1739, in which the first version of this picture was exhibited, differed between themselves as to how they interpreted it: for most of them, the gouvernante was scolding the child, though many of them went on unwarrantably to assume that this was for untidiness, or for dirtying his hat. The chevalier de Neufville de Brunaubois-Montador, however, thought that she was hearing his lesson . This was an opinion shared by (Watteau's) picture-dealer Gersaint, when he catalogued a version in his catalogue of the sale of the chevalier Antoine de la Roque in 1745; interestingly, even whilst citing the engraving (which is titled La gouvernante), he described the woman as the boy's mother, which chimes with Cochin's observation of her being of higher social status than Chardin's wonted models, and with the pairing of a version of La mère laborieuse with a version of this picture in Chardin's posthumous sale (the Goncourts also saw her as a mother - but of the lower middle class) . There is never any reason to give the verses appended to contemporary engravings of French 18th-century pictures a privileged status as interpretations of the latter, since they belong to a galant and frivolously moralising tradition of their own. François-Bernard Lépicié's own quatrain on his engraving of this picture is no exception to this: Malgré le Minois hippocrite Et l'air soumis de cet Enfant Je gagerois qu'il prémédite De retourner à son Volant (Despite this child's submissive air And his hypocritical little look I'll bet his mind's already there - Back to playing with his shuttlecock) If there is a moral, it is a more serious - though not profounder - one, implicit in so many depictions of childhood. The left-hand side of the picture contrasts the boy and his carefree pursuit of games and play, with the right-hand side occupied by the gouvernante, who has put aside one piece of work to take up another. The tension of this picture (as later, and even more memorably, in the Bénédicité of 1740) resides in the contrast between these two sides - with the bound-up schoolbooks projecting from under the boy's arm forming the liaison between one and the other - but with the soft, mingled colours of the tapestry glimpsed through the open door behind him also suggesting the little paradise of childish freedom yet to be enjoyed. The prime version of this picture, dated 1738, was apparently painted for Jean de Jullienne, the great collector and publisher of Watteau's works, but - always alert to a commercial opportunity - he had ceded it to the banker Despuech, or Delpuech, by the time that it was exhibited at the Salon and engraved in 1739. The very same year the latter in turn sold it to Prince Joseph Wenzel von Liechtenstein, Ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to the Court of France between 1737 and 1741, who also acquired from Chardin versions of La ratisseuse and La pourvoyeuse exhibited in the same Salon, and Les aliments de la convalescence exhibited in that of 1747. Little known thereafter, because all were hung high in the private apartments of the Liechtenstein Palace in Vienna, La gouvernante and La pourvoyeuse were acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 1956 . When he exhibited the Ottawa Gouvernante in the memorable Chardin exhibition in Paris, Cleveland and Boston in 1979, and again when he included it in Tout l'oeuvre peint de Chardin in 1983 (see Essential Lit. below), Pierre Rosenberg wrote that he knew only that one autograph version of it, but acknowledged the evidence for the existence of at least one other - that in the posthumous inventory of Chardin's effects, and then in his sale of 6 March 1780, which had a - possibly inserted - version of La mère laborieuse (the prime version of which was exhibited in 1740, but whose true pendant was La Bénédicité), as the pair to it. Knowing the Tatton picture only from a photograph, he pronounced it "de qualité plus qu'honorable": at the very least worthy of being the replica "retouchée dans plusieurs parties par M. Chardin" that was included in the posthumous sale of the chevalier Antoine de la Roque, the editor of the Mercure de France, in May 1745. Having seen it subsequently in the flesh, he was happy to acknowledge it as fully autograph (visit of 18 September 1990). Since then, the picture has been cleaned (by Keith Laing, 1994/5), which has not only confirmed its autograph status, but has also revealed what seem to be the faint traces of a signature - but not a date - over the cross-panel of the left-hand door (i.e. on the opposite side of the cross-panel to the position of the signature and date in the Ottawa picture). There are also undoubted pentimenti - and slight differences from the Ottawa version - at the ends of the racket and shuttlecock, and in the playing-cards - typical of Chardin's notorious meticulousness - and further differences in the back line of the boy's coat and the shape of his queue, and also in the skein of blue wool. In addition, Keith Laing has found traces of added pigment on the boy's coat and on the wall, with almost exactly the same composition and solubility as what is beneath them: strongly suggesting the artist's own retouching of his replica that Gersaint reported of the chevalier de la Roque's version. Were Gersaint further to be taken literally (though Pierre Rosenberg has already begged leave to differ in the case of the pendant to this picture in the La Roque sale , the version of La pourvoyeuse acquired by Frederick the Great and now in Berlin), this retouched version was also actually the one that was engraved by Lepicié; but the fact that the engraving specifically stated that the original belonged to 'Despuechs' when it was published in the autumn of 1739 (i.e. that it was the version now in Ottawa) rules that out. The distinction between the word "original" used by Gersaint of La Roque's version of La pourvoyeuse, and the word "copie" that he applies to La Roque's version of La gouvernante, must not be read anachronistically, as meaning that the one was by Chardin and the other was not: had that been so, Gersaint would not have been selling them together in the same lot, under Chardin's name. Rather, "original" meant the prime version - which may well have been the case with La pourvoyeuse, since the Berlin picture is signed and dated 1738 (like the Ottawa version, but a year earlier than the date on the Louvre version) - whereas "copie" meant autograph replica. That the present picture is just that - and could therefore have been La Roque's - is suggested not only by the physical details just given, and by its quality, but by the fact that it is painted on a double ground (grey over red), which scarcely conforms with the simplifying procedures of a copyist, but does agree with Chardin's own practice . The present picture is first certainly recorded when bought by Wilbraham Egerton of Tatton Park, whose collection consisted primarily of Italian or italianate pictures, at the sale of Sir George Warrender in 1837. How it got there - or even to England - is not known for certain, but - if it is the painting that was in La Roque's rather than that in Chardin's posthumous sale - it is exceedingly tempting to identify it with the picture called A young Gentleman and his Governess in one of Dr Robert Bragge's sales, that of 15-16 February 1749/50, at which it was sold to an unknown buyer for the respectable sum of 18 guineas. Its lack of a pendant, coupled with the separation of the Berlin La pourvoyeuse from its pendant, reinforces the idea that these were the two pictures that had been together in La Roque's sale. It is perhaps significant that all but two of the nineteen sales of paintings (sometimes recurrences of the same pictures) by Chardin in England before 1760 were of genre subjects such as this . His quiet still-lifes never found a ready reception here; his understated depictions of middle-class domesticity, by contrast, clearly struck some answering chord. Notes: (i) Exh. cat. Chardin (see Lit.), 1979, p. 263, col. 1. (ii) Ch.-N. Cochin, Essai sur la vie de Chardin (1780), quoted in exh. cat. cit., p. 202, col.2. (iii) It is clearly, for instance, a housekeeper who is shown warning the adult lovers in the picture by J.-Fr. De Troy engraved by Cochin the Elder under the title of La Gouvernante Fidèle (Jones Bequest, Victoria & Albert Museum: cf. C.M. Kauffmann, Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, vol.I: Before 1800, p.276, no.342). The 'false friend' translation - in this context - as 'governess' somewhat undermines Ella Snoep-Rietsma's discussion of this composition in 'Chardin and the Bourgeois Ideals of his Time: 2', Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, no.24 (1973), pp.186-88; repr. in her Verschuivende Betekenissen, 1975. (iv) Lettre à Madame la marquise S.P.R., 9 Sept. 1739, quoted exh.cat.cit., p. 262, col. 1. (v) L'art du xviiie siècle, Paris, 1860; translated by Robin Ironside as French XVIII Century Painters, London, 1958, p. 128. Mariette [LOOK UP his Abecedario & CITE] similarly calls the woman in La bonne éducation (1749): "une mère ou gouvernante". (vi) Cf. exh.cat. Chardin, Grand Palais, Paris; Cleveland Museum of Art; & Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1979, no.83; Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Chardin, Paris, 1983, no.117A; Philip Conisbee, Chardin, Oxford, 1986, p.162, col.pl.145 & pl.158. (vii) Cf. exh.cat. Chardin, 1979, no.80 (with text after no.81). (viii) Cf. Ross Merrill, 'A Step toward Revising Our Perception of Chardin', Pre-prints of Papers Presented at the Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Philadelphia, Pa., Washington, D.C., 1981, pp.123-28; cited and confirmed by Joseph Fronek, in 'The Materials and Technique of the Los Angeles Soap Bubbles', in Philip Conisbee, 'Soap Bubbles' by Jean-Siméon Chardin, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, pp.23-25. (ix) Robert Raines, 'Répertoire des tableaux de Lancret, Pater et Chardin dans les ventes anglaises avant 1760', Archives de l'Art français, vol.XXVI (1984), pp.182-3. (adapted from author's version/pre-publication, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., 1995)

Provenance

?Posthumous sale of Antoine,chevalier de la Roque (1672 - 1744), Paris, May 1745, lot 190, paired with a version of 'La pourvoyeuse' (sold together to 'Collins' for 164 livres); ? sale held by 'Dr' Robert Bragge (d. 1778), London, 15-16 Feb 1749/50, 1st day, lot 35 (sold for 18 gns); Sir George Warrender, 4th Bt of Lochend, East Lothian and Cliveden (1782 - 1849) ; his sale, Christie's, 3 June 1837, lot 5; bought by Wilbrahan Egerton, MP (1781-1856); by descent; bequeathed by Maurice Egerton, 4th Baron Egerton of Tatton (1874 - 1958) to the National Trust with the house, gardens and contents of Tatton Park

Marks and inscriptions

DR. CHARDIN (painted in black on plaque at base of frame)

Makers and roles

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (Paris 1699 – Paris 1779), artist

Exhibition history

Chardin, Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Ferrara, 2010 - 2011 In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.71

References

Rosenberg 1983 Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Cahrdin, Paris, 1983, no. 117a Conisbee 1986 Philip Conisbee, Chardin, Oxford, 1986 , p.152, col. pl. 145

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