Taking Time, Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
5.00

French artists of the ancien régime were rarely given to intimate, everyday studies – which is why Chardin's boys at leisure are so enticingly mysterious

In his left hand, the boy holds a playing card, an ace of hearts. He studies it, his lips pursed as though the red symbol on the card is their imprint. The boy is not interested in kissing, though – the neglected gaming-chips on the table spell out the innocence of his youth. Nor is his interest in the card's value as an ace. Like other boys on the wall in this room, he is using it to build a house: more properly, a château de cartes, the four young card-players being French, the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

Click HERE or on 'view gallery' above to see highlights of the show

Think of ancien régime painting and your mind, probably and properly, will fill with images of Chardin's contemporary, François Boucher: Rococo nudes doing nameless things in bushes, the voluptuous spirit of Versailles. Chardin, by contrast, painted copper pans, still lifes of fish, maids washing up, boys playing tops or cards. That makes him mysterious.

The 18th-century French art market was dominated by aristocratic patrons. This picture, The House of Cards, was owned by – perhaps painted for – Victor Amadeus, Prince of Carignano. The house-building boy is clearly a servant, snatching an illicit moment of leisure at his master's gaming table. Why would a Savoy princeling want to own such an image, at best plain and demotic, at worst seditious?

What makes this question compelling is the place where we see The House of Cards, a damask-lined salon in Waddesdon Manor. Waddesdon, built in the 1880s, is the supreme example of le goût Rothschild, the Rothschild taste. Yet Rothschilds have been collecting Chardins for 200 years. Charlotte de Rothschild, in Paris in the mid-19th century, owned 20 of them, most destroyed when the house in Bath where the paintings had been sent for safekeeping was bombed in the war. Her descendant, the current Lord Rothschild, heads the trust that owns The House of Cards. The question of why upstairs people like these downstairs images still hangs in the air.

An obvious answer might be play-acting of a Marie-Antoinette-in-the-milk-shed kind, although a look at the works in this show quickly rules that out. They are too real. Equally, they are not subversive. Because the scumbled austerity of Jacques-Louis David, that great lyricist of the Revolution, carries echoes of Chardin, it is easy to think of Chardin as sharing David's politics. Since he died a decade before the Revolution, that plainly cannot be. These four boys are not rebellious servants, little Figaros in the making. The point of their servitude is that, like all good servants, they do their job invisibly.

Which is to say that they do not get in the way, that we do not worry about them, even as cyphers of a hidden meaning. The house of cards may be a symbol of the fragility of life, but then one of the boys – bought by Catherine the Great, now on loan from Washington – isn't building a card-house. He is playing capucins, a game in which cards are folded to look like Capuchin friars, stood in a row and knocked over like dominoes. He is in control of the game, of his fate as a player. The four suits of cards may suggest love and death, poverty and nobility, but that is not the point of the four paintings in which they appear. Rather, they are studies in absorption, of the moment when concentration makes the world stand still.

Look again at these four boys, side-by-side on the wall. Despite their similarities, they are different. One, the National Gallery's House of Cards, has a sitter whose identity we know, the son, like Chardin himself, of a cabinet-maker. The light in this picture is clearer than in the other three. The left-most boy, from the Louvre, is the most dishevelled, and the only one not in full profile. Two face left and two right; the Waddesdon picture has Rubens-like drapery, so that we peer at its subject as past a curtain. The value of seeing these works together – a rare occurrence – isn't in spotting their differences, though, but in noting what stays the same.

Chardin liked to paint works in series, and these four boys were done in the space of two years, 1735 to 1737. Their meticulousness, their utter absorption, reflects his own absorption in his task: the boys are himself, forever on the point of success or failure. That is what makes this quartet so absorbing to us, whether prince or plutocrat or mere art critic. You may never get the chance to see the four Houses of Cards again, so get to this small, perfect show if you can.

To 15 Jul (01296 653203)

Art Choice

Trace the influence of Picasso on a wide range of British artists from Wyndham Lewis to Hockney via Bacon, or just glory in the Picassos on show at London's Tate Britain (to 15 Jul). That legacy is traceable too in the work of Keith Vaughan, whose shift from romanticism to abstraction is the focus at Pallant House, Chichester (to 10 Jun).

Click HERE or on 'view gallery' above to see highlights of the show

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit