Jean-Siméon Chardin (b. 1699)

The Little Schoolmistress, ca. 1740

On view at National Gallery of Art

Great Works, In Focus

Making a connection

18th-century painting of a teacher and her student is especially poignant now


Look closely at this 18th-century painting by Jean-Siméon Chardin. It is in the National Gallery of Art and it’s called “The Little Schoolmistress.” I have always loved it. I’m finding it especially poignant now, when we are all conscious of, among other things, how many children have been separated from their teachers.

I am the son of two teachers and married to a teacher. Teaching is hard. Teachers are not always great. But one of the things the teacher-student relationship does is establish a formal structure for the hope, the intuition, that we are not alone. We are not alone with our inexperience and ignorance. And perhaps just as important, we are not alone with our inner lives.

This painting, made around 1740, depicts that simple, modest, yet never-less-than-amazing phenomenon: one inner life reaching out to connect with another. (There are many ways in which this can happen — teaching is but one of them.)

Chardin, whose still life paintings are among the greatest in art history, painted two near-identical versions of “The Little Schoolmistress.” The earlier one, titled “The Young Schoolmistress,” hangs in the National Gallery in London (where it made a big impact on, among others, Lucian Freud). Both show a young person directing a small, round-faced child’s attention to what is written on papers in front of them. The child is looking down, trying — perhaps failing — to understand. Leaning forward, the young teacher is looking to her charge, awaiting the flicker of comprehension her instruction, her patience, deserve.

Why is it so moving?

Part of it, I think, is the tenderness in the way the young teacher’s body is inclined toward her student. There’s also a lovely, telling tension between the formality of the situation and both subjects’ youth. (The so-called schoolmistress is a mere child herself; but then, children do teach other children, don’t they? Often with more success than adults.)

What comes across most powerfully is Chardin’s depiction of a moment so intimate, so absorbed and absorbent, that it has an almost hallowed quality. You can feel a nimbus of attention as much around the painting itself as around the focused scene Chardin depicts.

As your gaze lingers, you notice the way the artist has captured the girl’s profile; the way her upper lip protrudes slightly; the pursed but in no way pinched or disapproving set of her lips; the unusually thin slits of her patient, focused eyes; the very slight tilt of her head; the blush on both their cheeks; and the harmonious coloring throughout.

To the young child, so small in the face of all that is knowable, the older girl must seem a repository of wisdom, a kind of angel, even. Presumably, she is not. She knows one or two things and is willing to share them. But in the end, she is just like us — another sentient being, small in the face of all that is unknowable.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.