Readings — From the September 2016 issue

Old Master

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By Marcel Proust (1871–1922), from an essay included in Chardin and Rembrandt, which will be published next month by David Zwirner Books as part of a new series featuring exemplary writing about art. Proust proposed the essay to a literary journal in 1895, but it was not published in his lifetime. Translated from the French by Jennie Feldman.

Only a petty mind, an artist who at most speaks and dresses as such, looks solely for people in whom it recognizes the harmonious proportions of allegorical figures. For the true artist, as for the natural scientist, every type is interesting, and even the smallest muscle has its importance. If you do not like seeing old people whose features lack some dignified or delicate regularity, old people whom age has pitted and reddened like rust, go and see, in the pastels gallery, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s self-portraits from when he was seventy. Above the enormous spectacles that have slipped down his nose, which they pinch with their brand-new lenses, his worn-out eyes turn upward in his diminished gaze, seeming to have done much looking, much bantering, and much loving, and to declare with a tender flourish: Hé bien, yes, I am old. Flecked with the gentle dimness of age, they have still kept their flame. But his eyelids, like clasps that have been overused, are fatigued, their rims red. Like the old garment that envelops his body, his skin has hardened and faded. Like the fabric, it has kept and almost heightened its pinkish tones, and is glazed here and there with a kind of golden nacre. And the wearing out of the one always recalls the worn tones of the other, these being the tones of all things nearing their end: dying embers, rotting leaves, the setting sun, clothes worn thin, and men who pass on, infinitely delicate, rich, and soft. It is astonishing to see how the creasing of the mouth is exactly governed by the aperture of the eyes, which also dictates the wrinkling of the nose. The slightest fold in the skin, the slightest protrusion of a vein, is the faithful, meticulous translation of three corresponding sources: the character, the life, and the emotion of the moment.

The carelessness of Chardin’s attire, a night bonnet already on his head, makes him look like an old woman, and, in another pastel of himself that Chardin has left us, approaches the droll outlandishness of an elderly English tourist. From the eyeshade pulled well down on his forehead to the Masulipatnam scarf knotted around his neck, everything makes you want to smile, without any thought of hiding the fact, at this old eccentric who must be so intelligent, so crazy, so gentle and docile in accepting this raillery. Above all, such an artist. For every detail of this formidable and careless outfit that equips him for the night seems as much an indication of taste as it is a defiance of propriety. If the Masulipatnam scarf is so old, it is because the old pink is softer. When you see the pink and yellow knots seemingly reflected in the pinkish-yellow skin, and recognize in the blue edge of the eyeshade the dark gleam of the steel-rimmed spectacles, your initial astonishment at the old man’s surprising garb melts into gentle delight and the aristocratic pleasure of finding, in the apparent disorder of an elderly citizen’s dishabille, the noble hierarchy of precious colors and the order of the laws of beauty.

When a young man stands before one who is old, there often arises — as it never does when he faces someone young — an inability to understand clearly the language at hand, which takes the form of an image yet is as swift, direct, and startling as a rejoinder, and which we call the play of features. Is Chardin looking at us with the bravado of an old man who does not take himself seriously, exaggerating — for our amusement or to show he is not fooled by it — the heartiness of a constitution as robust and a spirit as unruly as ever: “Ah! So you think you are the only youthful ones?’’ Or has our youth instead wounded his impotence, making him rebel with a passionate, futile defiance that is painful to behold? One could almost believe it, so serious is the eyes’ liveliness and the quivering mouth. Sometimes we smile when we look at old people, as we would in the presence of charming old lunatics. But at times we are fearful too, as we are in the company of madmen. In a long lifetime a smile has so often turned on the mouth’s hinges, anger or tenderness have so often rekindled the eyes’ fire or sounded the voice’s trumpet, and so often has vivid and ever-ready blood had to race all at once to the cheeks’ transparency, that the mouth’s worn-out springs no longer open with the effort of smiling, or do not properly close when seriousness returns. The eyes’ fire does not catch anymore, dimmed by smoke; cheeks no longer turn red, or else, stagnant as crimson lakes, they redden excessively. The face no longer precisely translates each thought or emotion into the appropriate expression, omitting either the emotion, without which an affirmation becomes a joke, or the affectionate sarcasm, without which a boast becomes a threat; instead of being the figurative yet accurate language of our feelings, the face becomes a kind of rambling nonsense, saddening and indistinct, which sometimes, between two contradictory and disconnected expressions, leaves a sudden space for our disquiet, our comments, our thoughtfulness.

You have seen objects and fruits that look as alive as people, and people’s faces, their skin, its fine down or unusual color, that have the look of fruit. Chardin goes further still, bringing together objects and people in these rooms that are more than an object, and even than a person perhaps, being the scene of their existence, the law of their affinities or contrasts, the restrained, wafted fragrance of their charm, their souls’ silent yet indiscreet confidant, the sanctuary of their past. As happens when beings and objects have lived together a long time in simplicity, in mutual need and the vague pleasure of one another’s company, everything here is amity. The pride of the old firedogs, loyal servants agleam with the honor of their masters, softens under the gently cordial gaze of the flame, and the dignified air of unmoving armchairs offers a welcome in this room where their lives slip by, where every morning they are taken to the window to be dusted down, their punctual dotards’ circuit or sluggish revolution always rounding off at exactly the same hour.

How many particular amities we come to know in a seemingly humdrum room, just as in a draft that stirs or drowses beside us we can see, when the sun falls across it, infinite, lively eddies. Look at The Diligent Mother or Saying Grace. There is amity between the sewing box and the old hound who comes each day to his usual spot, lying as he always does with his soft, lazy back against the box’s cushioned fabric. It is amity that so naturally draws to the old yarn winder, where they will feel so at ease, the dainty feet of the distracted woman whose body unwittingly complies with habits and affinities she unknowingly accepts. Amity, again, or marriage between the colors of the fire screen and those of the sewing box and skein of wool; between the inclined body and contented hands of the woman preparing the table, and the old tablecloth and dishes that have stayed intact, her careful hands still feeling, after so many years, their mild resistance where she always holds them; between this tablecloth and the light, which as a memento of its daily visits gives the cloth the softness of cream or of Flanders linen; between the light and the whole room it caresses, where it slumbers or wanders or cheerfully slips in unannounced, with such tenderness over so many years; between the warmth and the fabrics, between people and things, the past and this life, the bright and dark.

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