Great Works: The Copper drinking Fountain, 1734 (28cm x 23cm), Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was a doggedly persistent painter. He was at work during the Age of Enlightenment when notions of what constituted the real were shifting. Newtonian physics was making its mark. He returned again and again to the same motifs. And yet to use such a word as motif feels not quite right. It smacks too much of art-historical connoisseurship. What we should do instead is to name the actual humdrum objects that he painted: the game birds, the kitchen utensils, the heaped basket of wild strawberries, with glass, flower, peach and cherries in attendance. Not much, one would say. More than enough, he would reply – along with posterity. He was a Parisian painter, and to paint such lowly things was not quite a Parisian thing to do. Was that not best left to those Lowlanders up in the North? Chardin disagreed. Not noisily though. He simply continued to do what he did best, to carve out a niche for himself, over decades. In spite of the fact that he was a million miles from the bravura of the fashionable history painter, the Académie accepted him for what he was.

Here we have, in a painting that he made when he was 35 years of age, the essence of everything that he was, and everything that he strove to be. Here is the transfiguration of the utterly ordinary. We could think of Morandi in the context of these objects, but Chardin is more giving than Morandi in certain respects, more colourful, less pared back, more ready to acknowledge and celebrate the potential for visual richness and variety in the utterly ordinary, more ready to robustly characterise and animate that which is so often overlooked or undervalued.

The organisation of this still life of kitchen objects is almost comically Edward Lear-like in its deft allusion to hierarchies. The copper water fountain, bearer of the source of all life, lords it over the other objects, whose role it is to collect and then distribute what the fountain dispenses. It feels unbudgeable, at the centre of its own universe, lord of all it surveys. It has an almost religious, monstrance-like centrality, bulgingly bishop-like, prideful to the brim with its own secure presence in this world. It positively swells outward in the presence of onlookers. Its aura of sacredness is comically enhanced by its dull, coppery gleam, which also gives it a hint of monkishness. Monk and bishop all in one then. The knob at the top of its lid nudges up against the very top of the painting, as if, like some rebel angel, this fountain is dangerously challenging the heights. It can go no further. It has reached its apogee. Its base, thanks to its faithful support and retainer (a particularly dependable and workaday looking four-legged stool), is lodged solid on the dappled and rather indeterminate surface that it shares with the objects which attend upon it, and even in this particularly straitened and hole-in-corner domestic environment, seem to depend upon it for their utility, their very reason-for-being. The other objects look less solidly lodged here, more itinerant by nature. By their very haphazard positioning close to the urn, facing in this direction or that, randomly squeezed up together or raggedly set apart from each other, they seem to be ready to go out into the world of the rest of the house, filling other containers as and when that service is required. Not so this fountain. Things come to it, and those who bear these things. There is nothing for it but this place. It is too massy, too utterly dominating of its own tiny universe beside this stretch of old wall, against which its shadow looms, to wish for anything better or different. It feels utterly defined here, utterly itself.

Yes, it is almost as if this still life is serving as a kind of parable, as a way of expressing Chardin's fast held opinions about that which underpins and makes possible – he was also much given to the drawing of servants, who are often to be found using such objects as the ones that we can see in this painting – the orderly life of those who lord it over (and choose to ignore, for the most part) such objects as these. The physical triumphalism of this painting is all about the essential dignity of the lowly, whether animate or not, and how we depend upon them. Without them we would simply not be able to go about our gloriously superficial lives.

There is no activity of any kind in this painting. No water drips to steal our attention away from the objecthood of the black jug, the bucket, the ladle and the copper fountain itself. There is an immense solidity and authority to this fountain. It seems to wish to posture before our very eyes as it stands proudly high on its stool. The concentric rings of its lid seem to adorn it and to shift it, just a touch, in the direction of an object of decorative beauty. That cover could be a rather exotic hat of a particularly handsome Mongol kind.

This is evidently a further point to bear in mind: the lowly can be unexpectedly beautiful too. It is just a matter of the angle at which you choose to see them, whether with the naked eye or, squinting just a touch, through the ivory-handled lorgnette. If the latter, you pass on quickly and miss life's essentials.


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) had a particularly subtle and unemphatic manner of painting, and a choice of subject matter that seldom rose above the humdrum. In the flamboyant age of Boucher and Fragonard, he felt a touch out of key with his times. For all that, his dogged virtues won out in the end. In his paintings of ordinary objects and ordinary people, he succeeded in investing the day-to-day with exquisite qualities.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game