A young child is being taught by an older girl, perhaps in her early teens, who is possibly an elder sister or another relation such as a cousin. Despite the picture’s title, this is a private lesson, probably taking place at home rather than at school. The younger child is most likely a boy, although we cannot be entirely sure.
The chidren appear to be from a middle-class family, which is well provided for but not ostentatiously wealthy. They belong, perhaps, to the growing French bourgeoisie that particularly admired Chardin’s pictures, which they often knew and owned as engravings of the original paintings. This class particularly valued education, especially literacy, which was no longer confined to the nobility and professional classes.
Although Chardin is extolling work and study over playful time-wasting, any moralising purpose to his painting is very understated. Instead, his attention is on a quiet moment of interaction between two individuals.
A young child is being taught by an older girl, perhaps in her early teens, who is possibly an elder sister or another relation such as a cousin. Given the girl’s youthfulness, it is unlikely she is a governess. She is wearing an indoor nightcap decorated with a ribbon, known as a dormeuse, and a scarf and pinafore over her dress. The younger child is probably a boy, although we cannot be entirely sure. He wears a protective headdress known as a bourlet, which is also worn by children who are clearly boys in other paintings by Chardin.
Despite the picture’s title, this is a private lesson, taking place at home rather than at school. Both children lean forward slightly over a night table with a double door compartment, as the ’schoolmistress‘ points to the pages of the book open before them. The book is partly hidden by a loose sheet of paper covered in marks. It is impossible to make out what these marks are – partly due to Chardin’s distinctive method of keeping objects slightly out of focus – but as they are most likely letters, this is probably a reading lesson. The schoolmistress uses a sharp metal pointer, perhaps a knitting needle, positioned near the centre of the composition, her gesture repeated by the tiny hand of her young pupil.
The children appear to be from a middle-class family, which is well provided for but not ostentatiously wealthy. Their clothes and the undecorated table locate them within the domestic space of a middle-class home. They belong, perhaps, to the growing French bourgeoisie that particularly admired Chardin’s pictures, which they often knew and owned as engravings of his original paintings. This class particularly valued education, especially literacy, which was no longer confined to the nobility and professional classes. Education was available to girls, even if it was to prepare them for motherhood and domestic duties. But Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also extolled the importance of childhood and cultivating young minds.
Chardin’s pictures of children and adolescents combine aspects of portraiture and genre painting. This painting has been linked to several Dutch paintings including Caspar Netscher’s A Lady teaching a Child to Read. Netscher’s painting was in the Orléans Collection in the Palais Royal in Paris when Chardin painted his picture, and it is likely he knew of it. Not only was Netscher’s painting titled La maîtresse d’école (The Schoolmistress) in the collection’s catalogue, but both paintings include a similar gesture of the young child’s right hand and the use of a pointer by the teacher. In Chardin’s painting, however, the teacher is an older sister or cousin, and not a mother or governess. Instead, the young teacher adopts the role of an ‘ideal’ mother educating her young child, perhaps in preparation for when she herself will be a mother. In effect, both children in the painting are learning.
Dutch genre paintings often have a didactic message, but although Chardin is extolling work and study over playful time-wasting, any moralising purpose to his painting is very low key. Instead, his attention is on a quiet moment of interaction between two individuals, whose relationship he conveys brilliantly not just through details of gesture, expression and clothing but also through the handling of the paint itself. The slightly out-of-focus treatment of the young child’s face suggests a self that is still emerging in contrast to the sharper definition of the older girl.
Three versions of The Young Schoolmistress exist. This version and one in the National Gallery of Ireland were painted by Chardin, although it is unclear which one was exhibited in the Salon of 1740. A third, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is a copy after Chardin. It has been suggested that one of these versions was intended to be a companion piece to The House of Cards, and the National Gallery’s versions of the two paintings are often hung together. However, the slightly different sizes of the canvases and the absence of any documentary evidence from when either picture was exhibited at the Salon mean this is unlikely. As The House of Cards shows the son of Chardin’s friend, Jean-Jacques Le Noir, it has been suggested that The Young Schoolmistress includes other Le Noir children. However, it has not yet been possible to confirm the two children’s identity. If The Young Schoolmistress was meant to be paired with another painting by Chardin, sales catalogues from the time point to Soap Bubbles (Les Bulles de Savon), of which there are three signed versions, as the most likely contender. This painting shows an older boy idling away his time as a younger child looks on, its implicit warning against time-wasting complementing that of The Young Schoolmistress.
Several engravings were made of The Young Schoolmistress. The first, which reversed the composition, was published by François-Bernard Lépicié in 1740. Titled La Maîtresse d’Ecole, this print included the following verses beneath the picture: ’If this charming child puts on so well / The serious manner and imposing appearance of a schoolmistress / May one not think that artifice and subtlety / Are granted to the fair sex no later than at birth.' These lines significantly alter the painting’s meaning by presenting the older girl as a wily, perhaps even mischievous, young adult, who is merely acting the part of a teacher. Subtle changes in the print itself heighten this transformation – for example, the strengthened definition around the eyes and greater emphasis to the eyelids and lips. In a later engraving, produced in 1752, the lips of the young schoolmistress were even coloured crimson. Whereas Chardin creates mystery by withholding narrative information, the engraving’s introduction of psychological clues and personalities, particularly to the schoolmistress, undermines the painting’s open-ended quality, where it is left up to us to speculate on the connection between these two young people.
The painting was a favourite of the British artist, Lucian Freud, who included it in his 1987 Artist’s Eye exhibition at the National Gallery. A few years later, following an invitation from the Gallery to produce a painting in response to its collection, he also made two copies in oil and two etchings of the painting. For these Freud slightly modified the composition – for example, removing the schoolmistress’s pointer and placing us at the table with the two children.
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