Tiny but monumental

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; C01

Museums are time machines. They let us look at all the pieces of the past they preserve. Sometimes, they also let us look at vintage looking.

Last year, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art rearranged its lovely little permanent collection, a few galleries were rehung to mimic how art was looked at for most of the last half-millennium. Many Corcoran works are now displayed "Salon-style," with pictures of every size and style, on every subject, stacked up to the ceiling. It doesn't make it easy to examine every one of them, the way we're used to doing in books and slide talks and special exhibitions. But a Salon hang does produce an interesting tussle among the works themselves, as they vie for our attention - the same struggle they would have had when they were first made and collected.

A Salon hang also changes the way we negotiate the art: It turns a modern type-A viewer into a leisurely grazer. Looking at this throng of paintings, the ease and poise of an aristocratic collector, at home among his treasures, replaces the eager-beaver art historian in you, fighting for A grades.

If nothing else, a Salon hang also saves shoe leather. You can sit on the bench in a single gallery and browse among dozens of works.

For every day one recent week, I lounged in the grand old space the Corcoran calls the Mantel Room, where the museum has created a Salon with dozens of its best old European pictures.

Each day this week, I'll be writing on a single work that called out to me from the crowd.

DAY 1: Chardin's little giantess

Shall we start off taking it easy on ourselves? Instead of looking up into a far corner of this "salon," where an obscure work has been "skied," as the term used to be, we can keep our eyes focused straight ahead, to look at one of the Corcoran's greatest treasures: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin's "The Scullery Maid," painted in 1738 in Paris and hung in that year's Salon. (We can only hope it wasn't skied.) The painting is tiny but potent.

It shows a servant girl going about her duties, in a scullery space filled with an old wooden barrel and a few humble tools of the housekeeper's trade. What could be more humble, as subject or as art, than this image of a girl scrubbing a pan? When Chardin was painting, only big pictures of heroic moments in church or national history counted for much. A painting like Chardin's counted (and sold) for even less than a portrait, which is saying something.

So if it's so lowly, why does this "Scullery Maid" strike a viewer with such force? Maybe that is partly because because Chardin doesn't let us notice how tiny his picture is. He forces us to come close and take in all its minuscule detail: the roughness of the girl's coarse apron, the tiny sparkle of light (rendered by the smallest dot of paint) on the pearl or bell at her neck, the glint on a copper basin. We can't imagine how Chardin achieved his lifelike effects, especially in such a compact package, so we approach to admire his skill.

And once we've come so near, the painting fills our eyes as well as any mural could. Human vision can't tell how big something really is, out there in the world; it has to measure it by checking how much space it takes up in our field of view. Once Chardin drags us up to his painting, his maid looms so large that she might as well be in the room with us.

Chardin's figures are sometimes described as achieving a "monumental" feeling, given their tiny size. He used tricks to trigger that feeling.

We may know we're close to the Chardin we're looking at, and feel we're close to its subject, but there are also signals telling us we're far away. The space in his scene seems strangely compressed, with less depth in it than we'd expect, less room between its objects. The empty foreground barely seems deep enough to have room for an oversize copper basin, a big copper lid and a large clay pot. We know that the maid's wooden barrel has to be several feet deep, but it doesn't look or feel like it is.

If we were as close to the maid as we are to her painting, we'd see down onto the top of that barrel, and most of its wide top would be open to our view; the clay pot at her feet, seen out of the corner of an eye, would have an almost fisheye distortion. If we don't see any of these, we must be far away, peering at our view through some imaginary telescope.

And if you know you're far away from something and it still fills your field of view, then your brain can only come to one conclusion: What you're seeing must be huge. It's the same effect that makes figures seen through a telescope seem giantlike, rather than simply enlarged to a "normal" size so you can see them. The flattening we see in Chardin's "Scullery Maid" is the same flattening you get when shooting photos through a telephoto lens.

Chardin's effect conjures a "far-away-nearby" that isn't just about geeky optical knowledge. It pays artistic and emotional dividends.

One standard notion about serving girls is (or at least was, among the artistos who were major clients of Chardin's) that they're easy prey for any male around. Whether they like it or not, those girls are available, to the eye if not the hand. Almost any view of a maid, that is, is likely to have a bit of the leer about it - it will always smack of privacy invaded, of a view through the keyhole. Yet Chardin's view neither leers nor invades.

Rather, the overall feeling of the Corcoran picture is of tenderness, a tender appreciation for its heroine despite her low status and menial job. And maybe that is partly because even though we're seeing her clearly, our brains feel as if we're doing so from very far away. We're not close enough to touch her; we're probably not close enough for her to notice that we're there. We have a disembodied, impartial, almost Godlike view of this "monumental" girl that we see, and we're too removed from her flesh - or even from ideas of flesh - to want to make a grab for it.

For a scene in a scullery, every object in Chardin's picture is so clean that it gleams. Our eyes, as viewers, are kept just as clean. By making his maid big, he's also ennobled her, and anyone who looks at her.

This painting may be "just" a genre scene, but it achieves amazing elevation. Its hard-won monumentality lets Chardin escape the limits of the modest field he's chosen to work in.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company