Leaning forward, a young girl runs her knitting pin – a makeshift pointer – across the page of a book laying on top of a tall cabinet. Standing behind the cabinet, a younger child of uncertain gender tries to follow the movements of the pin with their finger. [Fig. 1] We are witnessing a reading lesson: the child’s task is to spell out the letters indicated by their teacher. The reading manuals of the period strongly emphasised the lesson’s oral component, enjoining teachers to make sure that their pupils ‘open their mouth rather than speaking through their teeth’ to assure proper pronunciation.1 But Chardin’s lesson is silent. The schoolmistress, her lips pursed, relies on the knitting pin as her sole means of communication; her younger care, its mouth shut, has not yet spoken. There is no eye contact between the two figures, nor are they looking at us: the girl is shown almost in profil perdu (‘lost profile’), her companion’s eyes, barely articulated by smudges of pigment, are cast down on the page. Brightly illuminated, Chardin’s protagonists are withdrawn from us – inaudible and inaccessible.
The sense of inaccessibility is enhanced by the voluminous presence of the cabinet that serves here as a locus of instruction. In its prominence almost a third protagonist of this scene, it is an odd piece of furniture to choose for an activity usually performed while sitting at a table, as Caspar Netscher depicted it before Chardin. [Fig. 2] The provisional table in the Young Schoolmistress supports, but also to some extent obstructs the task of instruction. Its unwieldy shape and considerable height erect a physical barrier between the teacher and her pupil. Moreover, the raised edges of its tray top complicate the performed task, especially for the younger child who, barely as tall as the cabinet, has to raise their arm over and above the protrusion to reach the book. The fact that it may have been a bedside cabinet, its closed compartment serving as storage for a chamber pot, makes the choice of this furnishing item as a site of domestic education the more strange.2
While the reasons for its adoption may have simply been expedience – a piece of furniture that the painter had at hand – the cabinet performs a key pictorial function in Chardin’s vision of pedagogy.3 It epitomises the effect of occlusion and withholding that marks this vision. Limiting both the contact between the figures and our access to them, the cabinet’s bulky presence affects especially the appearance of the younger child. Hiding most of the child’s body – the reduction of their fingertips to three dashes of pink pigment resting on the raised edge accentuates the corporeal withdrawal – the cabinet stands in for that body, its mahogany veneer matching the brown tones of the child’s dress. That this piece of furniture was deliberately situated to act as both a hindrance and a substitute for the child’s corpus is confirmed by the painter’s evident fussing with its rendition. It looks as if Chardin painted the face of the cabinet first, placing it in a desired position, and then tried to fit in the rest of it, an effort that produced some structural and visual incongruities.4 One wonders about the cabinet’s double door and considerable width – both unusual for a nightstand – and even more about the front-and-centre presence of the lock and key, an impractical feature, given the cabinet’s function. French bedside cabinets, by contrast, had open compartments for convenient access to the chamber pot. [Fig. 3]
If aspects of its appearance raise questions about the real-life function of the cabinet – was it indeed a nightstand or another kind of furnishing item?5 – its importance in the construction of this scene of learning, and especially in defining the child as its subject, is evident. Replacing its body, the locked cabinet evokes the child’s interiority as a discrete and inscrutable space that is in some way involved in the represented process learning. Chardin’s rendering of the child’s face –its deliberately blurry features (anticipating Gerhard Richter’s strategic use of blur) that contrast with the sharply focused articulation of the cabinet’s ‘face’ below – reinforces this suggestion. Its physiognomy withdrawn, the face represents the child’s internal processing of the lesson.6 Rather than mechanically repeating the letters of the alphabet, this young person is shown cogitating. The silence in which the painter enveloped this scene underscores the dimension of interiority, as does the voided, unspecified space in which it is taking place.
The painting thus brings to the fore the role of subjectivity in the pedagogical process. Learning to read, according to Chardin, is not a matter of routine memorisation, but of absorbing knowledge by interiorising it – making it one’s own. It is not just the alphabet, but language as a means of subjective and social functioning that the painting’s younger protagonist is in the process of acquiring. The presence of illegible, vaguely coloured signs on the pages – images or symbols rather than letters, as Chardin’s engraver, François Bernard Lépicié, saw them – evokes language in a broader sense, as a symbolic tool through which a subject must articulate itself to be comprehended by others.7 [Fig. 4 & Fig. 5] The child featured here is most likely three to four years old, which was the age when bourgeois children in eighteenth-century France were expected to receive reading instruction at home, and Chardin’s portrayal of it emphasises the early stage of its formation.8 Emerging from behind the dull cabinet into the sphere of light and learning, the child is poised at the very threshold of subjecthood.
We find a similar image of a child as an emergent subject in Chardin’s Soap Bubbles (1733–34), a painting believed to be a pendant to the Young Schoolmistress.9 [Fig. 7] Peering from behind a thick stone ledge, the child – likely based on the same model who posed for our painting – is eager to partake in the pleasures of their older companion and to possess the secrets of his stunning performance. But the latter, engrossed in his activity, entirely ignores the child. In The Young Schoolmistress the relation between the two figures is different: the older girl earnestly engages with her partner. But she does so from a certain distance, which the gap between the end of her knitting pin and the child’s index finger on the page reiterates and reinforces. It is this distance – so different from the bodily proximity of the two figures in Netscher’s painting – that defines the pedagogical relation between Chardin’s schoolmistress and her care.
Réné Démoris described the young schoolmistress’s stance as ‘a kind of astonished withdrawal before the child and what she is making him do’, adding that she looks at her protégé as a ‘foreign object’.10 I take this to imply not her condescension but her recognition of the child’s distinct and separate existence. Rather than emotional coldness, the girl’s ‘astonished withdrawal’ from her pupil signals that, in the midst of her teaching act – we know that, being likely an older sister or cousin of the child, she performs the role of, rather than being a schoolmistress – she became aware of the child’s difference from her, their status as an other (a foreign object).11 Her at once inclined and withdrawn posture – carefully calibrated by Chardin – conveys the girl’s cognisance of both the potential and the epistemic limits of her pedagogical effort – the limits materialised by the wooden barrier of the edge behind which the child stands.12 She realises that the child is teachable, malleable, but also opaque, not fully accessible to her, and she accepts it, as her patient, perhaps slightly superior look indicates.13
It is precisely the acceptance of the opacity of others that constitutes the ethical bases of pedagogy envisioned in this painting. Divorcing the obligation to transmit knowledge from a desire to fully fathom its recipient, Chardin formulates the ethics of instruction that assumes the inviolability of its subject, that lets it be in itself.14 How he represents his protagonists makes this evident: they are shown to exist in different symbolic realms. She has already entered the social system of language and accepted the distinctions it implies. The neat elegance of her attire and hairstyle and the self-satisfaction she exudes, point to the girl’s identification with the social and gender role assigned to her. The child, on the other hand, still inhabits a non-discursive domain – the domain of touch rather than speech, as their use of their finger rather than mouth indicates – where distinctions, such as gender, do not obtain. That Chardin made no effort to suggest the child’s gender, including no attributes except for a protective bonnet (bourlet) that was worn then by children of both sexes, confirms his intention to define the child’s symbolic status as distinct from its instructor’s.15 The contrast between the crisp articulation of the girl’s beribboned cap and the chromatic chaos of the child’s bonnet underscores that distinction.
The Young Schoolmistress points, moreover, towards an ethics of painting. At once presenting his figures to us and withholding visual information about them – blurring their features, occluding their bodies, or turning them away from us – the painter encourages a mode of looking geared not towards visual possession and epistemological control but towards acceptance of the indirectness and opacity of painting and appreciation of its mysterious means. That Chardin would formulate such ethics of seeing at that time had to do with historical circumstances: the establishment of the public arena of art experience with the introduction of the regular Salon exhibitions in 1737; the emergence of the viewer, the critic, and the dedicated discourse on art; the development of the art market, auctions, and specialised publication for promoting art; the invention of art expertise based on visual analysis (connoisseurship) – in sum, the advent of what may be called ‘the regime of the eye’.16 Painted sometime around 1737, and exhibited at the Salon of 1740, The Young Schoolmistress may be seen as a response to these new conditions of enhanced visibility of art precisely insofar as it both encouraged the look, illuminating the scene to draw the viewer in, and set epistemic limits on it, by infusing it with ambiguity and silence.
From the walls of a public museum where it now hangs, Chardin’s painting addresses us with an ethical obligation to look at art differently – to accept its non-transparency. But its ethical relevance goes beyond the experience of art. As we embrace virtual forms of instruction, entrusting ourselves willingly to the regime of the eye and yoking learning to the illusion of total visibility, it is perhaps useful to be reminded by The Young Schoolmistress of a pedagogy based in respect for the unknowability of others.