A young boy stands at a small wooden table fully absorbed in building a house out of playing cards. He is Jean-Alexandre Le Noir, whose father, Jean-Jacques Le Noir, was a furniture dealer and cabinet-maker, who commissioned several paintings from Chardin.
The theme of a child building a house of cards was a familiar one in which the delicately balanced cards represent the fragile nature of human endeavour. Pictures of this subject were often accompanied by moralising verses, as was Chardin’s painting when it was engraved. But there may also be a family connection. As a maker of fine furniture, Monsieur Le Noir may have hoped his son would follow him into the business. The boy’s card building is perhaps not just a game but may also be an exercise in sound methods of construction.
The picture is one of four identified versions of The House of Cards painted by Chardin.
This picture is one of four identified versions of The House of Cards painted by Chardin. It is most likely the last version he painted and was probably exhibited at the Salon of 1741.
A young boy stands at a small wooden table, which is covered with green baize. Leaning forward slightly with his forearms resting on the table top, he is fully absorbed in the task of constructing a house out of playing cards. The first storey has already been completed and he is about to begin the second. The boy is Jean-Alexandre Le Noir, whose father, Jean-Jacques Le Noir, was a furniture dealer and cabinet-maker. A close friend of Chardin, who had witnessed the artist’s marriage in 1744, Jean-Jacques Le Noir had commissioned several paintings from him, including a portrait of Madame Le Noir (now lost and known only from an engraving). It has been proposed that other Le Noir children are shown in The Young Schoolmistress, which was painted a few years earlier. However, it is not possible to be certain, and the claim that the two paintings were companion pieces, intended to hang together, is unlikely.
The theme of a child building a house of cards was familiar to Chardin’s contemporaries from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century images, which were often accompanied by moralising verses. When an engraving of Chardin’s painting was made by François-Bernard Lépicié in 1743, the caption under the image included the lines: ‘Dear child on all pleasures bent / We hold your fragile work in jest / But think on’t, which will be more sound / Our adult plans or castles by you built?’ But even without the addition of the verse, the symbolism of the delicately balanced cards – signifying the fleeting and fragile nature of human endeavour – would have been clear.
Cards were also associated with gambling, but this does not appear to be Chardin’s concern here, despite the presence of a chip and a coin on the table. These seem to be of no interest to the boy (who anyway does not have a companion with whom to gamble) and were most likely left over from an earlier game of piquet. Nor does the boy have any interest in the value of the cards themselves. Indeed, he is looking at the blank reverse of the card he is holding. As stated in the catalogue of the 1741 Salon, the boy is simply ‘enjoying himself making a house of cards.’
The fact that this house of cards is only one storey high may be of significance. Contemporary paintings of this theme typically show the cards to be two or more storeys high – and thus at greater risk of collapse. It has been suggested that the incomplete house could be a metaphor for the child, who is not yet an adult. But there may also be more immediate family associations. As a maker of fine furniture, Monsieur Le Noir may have hoped that his son would follow him into the business. The boy’s card building is perhaps not just a game but may also be an exercise in methods of construction. ‘Noir’ means black in French, and the prominent display of two upright folded black suit cards (the spade and club) – whose tripartite shapes echo the boy’s black tricorne hat – is perhaps intended to suggest an association between the Le Noir family name and a profession based upon creating structures that will endure.
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