The French Enlightenment had a huge impact on the style and subject matter of art, especially in France. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were two of the leading figures of the French Enlightenment, with contrasting beliefs. Voltaire argued that the development of science and the improvement of human rationality and society would lead to the salvation of humankind. On the other hand, Rousseau argued that the arts, sciences, and society in general had corrupted humans and that we should return to our “original condition,” and that feelings and emotions come before academic and societal development (as expressed by Rousseau’s following quote: “To exist is to feel, our feeling is undoubtedly earlier than our intelligence, and we had feelings before we had ideas.”).
Rousseau’s ideas greatly influenced art in France. They caused French art to stray away from the frivolous, fancy, and wealthy Rococo style and focus more on the natural and the simple. French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) was particularly influenced by these ideas as his works often depict the simple goodness of life and ordinary people, especially mothers and children whose home environment greatly contrasted the developed outside society referenced by Rousseau.
In Saying Grace, the viewer is welcomed into the home of a modest family and witnesses a mother and her two daughters who are about to dine. The detailed still-life accessories in the background and their “wear and tear” indicate the family’s humbleness. The mellow colors and the color arrangement create a gentle feeling and a subdued tone. In this scene, the mother and the older daughter supervise the younger daughter giving thanks to God before the meal, a pious ritual.
I think that Fred S. Kleiner, author of Gardener’s Art through the Ages, beautifully captured the essence of this scene and the talent of Chardin. He describes the painting, saying “the simplicity of the composition reinforces the subdued charm of the scene…” and Kleiner describes Chardin as “a master of the nuances [of the commonplace].” Kleiner writes, “a gentle sentiment prevails in all of [Chardin’s] pictures, an emotion not contrived and artificial but born of the painter’s honesty, insight, and sympathy.” I think that in his eloquently-phrased descriptions, Kleiner hit the nail on the head and I could not agree more.
I really like this painting and the simplicity of life it embodies. The focus on the average family as well as the depiction of a mother caring for her children really highlight the aspects of life and of society that Rousseau argued we should return to. I think that the light colors chosen really emphasize the ordinariness of life and effectively convey the ambiance of peacefulness, tranquility, and of love of the home setting.