I’ve already talked about Chardin’s art and life but this still life is his most famous work. This oil on canvas, made in 1728, is entitled The Ray. This painting measures 114 cm by 148 cm and is part of the Louvre Museum’s French paintings collection.
The Ray was first presented in the Exposition de la Jeunesse (a “Youth Show” dedicated to young artists who were not yet part of the Académie) and had great success. Then Chardin showed it to the Académie. He was accepted and admitted to the Académie on the same day which was exceptional (usually it took a few months and several different pieces). This painting has often been shown at the Salon. All acceptance and reception pieces joined the Académie’s collections, which became part of the Muséum Central des Arts de la République (future Louvre Museum) in 1793.
The composition is very stable. The inanimate pitcher and cauldron, on the right, are juxtaposed with the tension and strangeness of the cat. With its bristly hair, the animal seems to be frightened by a scene outside of the painting. The composition is centered on the flayed ray which reminds us the Slaughtered Ox by Rembrandt and shows the Flemish inspiration of Chardin. There is a great balance between illuminated areas and the colors’ intensity which, in a brown cameo, enhance red spots (such as interior of the ray) and white matter (cat’s hair, reflections in the ray’s surface, tablecloth). The background is rapidly brushed to evoke a stone wall. Colors are melted together as a result of the struggle between Poussinists and Rubenists that the latter won.
What seduces the viewer is not the subject itself but the technical virtuosity used by Chardin. In 1763, Diderot commented on the Ray to question implicitly the hierarchy of genres and to criticize Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre who was in favor of the return to great history painting as it was in the 17th century (still life being at the bottom of the hierarchy).