Jean-Siméon Chardin, “Self Portrait or Portrait of Chardin Wearing an Eyeshade,” 1775. Pastel, 46 × 38 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Arts Graphiques.

This two-part note concerns the pastel of 1775 by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), acquired by the Musée du Louvre in 1839, and alternatively known as “Self-Portrait”and “Portrait of Chardin Wearing an Eyeshade.” More specifically, it concerns a reference to one single physical, technical attribute of this work that scholars have noted in the correspondence of Paul Cézanne. To record one’s observation of such a single attribute may be thought the most minimal and least ambiguous form of writing about a work of art; so that Cézanne can say to his reader, take a look yourself, and “verify this fact.” However, scholars are not in agreement about the meaning of Cézanne’s “fact”—and I am not even certain that it actually is about one of the physical attributes of Chardin’s pastel.

1. This sentence is not clear.

On June 27, 1904, the aged Cézanne wrote to a young friend, the painter and critic Emile Bernard, on the subject of Chardin’s self-portrait, which depicted an also aged artist:

Vous vous rappelez le beau pastel de Chardin, armé d’une paire de bésicles, une visière faisant auvent? C’est un roublard, ce peintre. Avez-vous pas remarqué qu’en faisant chevaucher sur son nez un léger plan transversal d’arête, les valeurs s’établissent mieux à la vue? Vérifiez ce fait, et vous me direz si je me trompe.

This passage, to be found in John Rewald’s 1937 collection of Cézanne’s letters, was translated by Marguerite Kay in the 1941, and all subsequent English-language editions, as:

You remember the fine pastel by Chardin, equipped with a pair of spectacles and a visor providing a shade. He’s an artful fellow, this painter. Haven’t you noticed that by letting a light plane ride across the bridge of the nose the tone values present themselves better to the eye? Verify this fact and tell me if I am wrong.

At the end of the penultimate sentence, the reader is directed to a footnote that states, “This sentence is not clear,” and gives the original French.

That same sentence was not so clear either to Julie Lawrence Cochran, who, in Michael Doran’s authoritative (2001), Conversations with Cézanne, translated it as, “Have you noticed how that thin intersecting plane across his nose enhances the values.” We reasonably ask: What thin intersecting plane? An answer, however, had just been provided: by Caroline Beamish’s translation of Pierre Rosenberg’s entry on this work in the English-language edition of the catalogue of the big, international Chardin exhibition of 2000. Presumably having looked at Chardin’s pastel for elucidation, they write: “Have you noticed how, by allowing a plane of light to cross his nose at a slight angle, the values adapt much better to the eye?” While the unclear Doran-Cochran version is more commonly repeated in writing on Cézanne, owing to its being in a standard volume of primary sources, the clearer Rosenberg-Beamish translation continues to be used, most recently appearing in Alex Danchev’s new biography of Cézanne. It urges us to see, with Cézanne, how the plane of light cast across the bridge of Chardin’s nose allows the adjacent range of tonal values to establish themselves better in our vision.

This is a plausible statement for Cézanne to have made about the pastel. Earlier in his letter to Bernard, he had written, “I remain in the grip of sense-perceptions”; and, on December 23rd of the same year, he would write to him that “an optical sensation is produced in our visual organs that allows us to classify by light, half tone, or quarter tone, the planes represented by color sensations. Light, therefore, does not exist for the painter.” This reinforces what he had written six months earlier. In this expanded explanation, Chardin, by setting down a plane of color perceived as the lightest in that particular area of his self-portrait, motivates the eye to classify it and the ambient planes on a scale from lighter to darker. Light does not exist for, but is induced by the painter in the organization of color sensations.

Fascinating, of course, that Cézanne did not mention the adjacent and more prominent dark plane across the nose, which records the shadow of the bridge of Chardin’s eyeglasses. Without its presence, and the complementary contrast if affords, the light plane would not appear to be as bright as it does. The dark and the light, mutually reinforcing, are equally important.

However, to speak in this way of the dark and the light presumes that Cézanne’s “un léger plan” translates as Rosenberg-Beamish’s “a plane of light.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t. If Cézanne had meant “a plane of light,” he would likely have written “un plan clair.” Neither Kay’s “light plane” nor Doran-Cochran’s “thin…plane” are clear, but only because there are almost 40 English words that can translate “léger.” Among these are “gentle,” “slight,” “thin,” “pale,” “soft,” and “light”—but “light” not in the sense of “luminous”; rather, in the sense of “not heavy.”

2. Tired eyes.

Chardin had his outsize eyeglasses, made in England, because his eyes had suffered from the burning effects of lead-based pigments and mediums, which is also what led him, in his old age, to turn from oil paint to the pastel of his self-portrait—and at times to wear a visor when working.

The aged Cézanne also suffered from poor eyesight. On the occasion of the great Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne of 1907, a year after the artist’s death, Bernard published his “Memories of Paul Cézanne.” There, rather than quoting the letter on Chardin’s pastel, he recounted a conversation: “‘What a sly devil was old Chardin with his visor,’ [Cézanne] remarked. Then he put his index finger between his eyes [presumably horizontally, like a visor] and stammered, ‘Yes, like that I have a clear vision of the planes.’” Later in these “Memories,” Bernard returned to the same subject:

The failing of which Cézanne most complained was his vision. “I see overlapping planes,” he told me, “and sometimes straight lines appear to me to fall.” These faults, which I was considering as products of his willful disregard, he blamed on the weaknesses and bad habits of his vision. It was his constant preoccupation to find a way to better see the values. He talked frequently about Chardin’s eyeglasses and his visor as a possible remedy, but he never tried them.

Cézanne had written to Bernard on October 23, 1905, about planes falling on top of each other, but not in the context of his weakening vision. We know that Bernard is not very reliable as a narrator. Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the unclear sentence in Cézanne’s unquestionably authentic letter on Chardin’s self-portrait is not, in fact, about a physical attribute of the pastel: the plane of light that carries across the bridge of the nose and allows the work’s range of tonal values better to be seen. It could well be about the practical purpose of the shade-creating visor depicted in the pastel: “Haven’t you noticed,” he asks Bernard in this interpretation, “that a visor, by letting a light (or soft, or gentle) plane carry across the bridge of the nose, allows our vision to better see the range of tonal values in whatever we are observing.” “Verify this fact and tell me if I am wrong.” He is not wrong: By reducing glare, it improves sharp-sightedness, especially for tired eyes; a fact that any landscape painter will verify.

To this point, Cézanne concluded his next letter to Bernard by saying, “Don’t be an art critic, but paint, there lies salvation.”

Place de Louvre // Paris, France


John Elderfield