December 6 is the day to remember Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, the French still life master, who died 240 years ago. Chardin's submission to the Salon of 1771 shocked his peers and public alike; in the place of his usual still lifes or genre paintings, he exhibited three pastels, including his Self-Portrait with Spectacles (1771). There had already been rumors spreading around Paris that he had fallen ill, but it was not until the early 1770s that it was discovered that the great painter's eyesight was failing him. He wrote in a letter to Comte d'Angiviller, "My infirmities have prevented me from continuing to paint in oils, and I have resorted to pastels." The lead-based oil paints used by eighteenth-century artists emitted fumes that aggravated Chardin's already weakened eyes. Pastels, on the other hand, had no such adverse effects, and thus allowed him to continue to work. Coincidentally, this same condition, amaurosis, a paralysis of the eyes, would strike Edgar Degas a century later; he too would turn to pastels as a solution. Chardin's pastel portraits are characterized by bold color and a painterly touch, as he experimented with the textures that different papers allowed him. Though he had made very few portraits throughout his career, these late works demonstrate Chardin's talent both for life drawing and for rendering subtle modulations of light and tone.
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