In the last years of his activity Chardin tackled the theme of the self-portrait several times, always in the medium of pastel. This technique was used by the artist increasingly often from the beginning of the 1770s onward and came to replace that of oil almost completely. The reasons for this choice lie not so much in the course of Chardin's stylistic development as in his failing health, which meant that he could no longer tolerate the fumes given off by the paint, which tended to burn his eyes. The painter who had dedicated his artistic career to the still life painting and the genre painting scene demonstrates here, in a work of wholly private character, not intended either for a client or for the market, his skill in the representation of the human figure and an uncommon depth of psychological penetration. An ideal model must have been, of course, the numerous self-portraits of Rembrandt, against which Chardin seems to have measured himself directly in several studies of heads from these years.
The work illustrated here has, in common with other celebrated pastels in which the painter portrayed himself, a taste for the bizarre, especially in the strange headgear, a feature which struck acute observers like Proust. Ile rightly pointed out, in Contre Saint-Beuve, that the "scruffiness" and "comic strangeness of his dress" were masterfully combined with "the noble hierarchy of colors" and "the order of the laws of beauty." According to the great French writer, in his self-portrait, as in so many still lifes, the artist was seeking the pictorial "truth" of the object represented, i.e. harmony of light and color, but this was accompanied by a study of the expression and the attitude worthy of a great portraitist. Compared with the other pictures he painted of himself, Chardin here looks much thinner, markedly older and in pain: it is likely that it was one of the artist's last works, perhaps dating from 1779, the year of his death.
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