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Blowing Soap Bubbles

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

There are 4 versions of Bubble Blower. The first version shown at the 1739 Paris Salon is missing and known only from a print by Pierre Filloeul. Other versions are at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The New York and L.A. versions are both reversed and thus probably made after Filloeul’s print.


In 1749 art critic P.-J. Mariette noted that  Blowing Soap Bubbles was a new and successful type of subject for Charin – the representation of childhood and early adolescence:

“He had the opportunity to paint the head of a young man blowing soap bubbles, which exists as a print; he had painted him carefully from life and had tried hard to give him an ingenuous air: he showed it around; people said nice things to him about it. The masters of the art praised the effort he had made to get that far, and the curious, by displaying great interest in this new subject matter, caused him to embrace it.”

Quoted in Pierre Rosenberg, Chardin 1699-1779 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979), 206.


Michael Fried considers “absorption” an important aspect of Chardin’s Blowing Soap Bubbles:

“The concept of absorption is not one that we are accustomed to apply systematically to the art of the past. But on examination it turns out that subjects involving absorptive states and activities are present in abundance in earlier painting, and that in the work of some of the greatest seventeenth-century masters in particular – Caravaggio…Poussin…Vermeer, and supremely, Rembrandt … those states and activities are rendered with an intensity and a persuasiveness never subsequently surpassed. In this sense there had been a tradition of absorptive painting, one whose almost universal efflorescence in the seventeenth century was everywhere followed by its relative decline…however, it is clear that the representation of absorption did not wholly disappear from French painting with the rise of the Rococo….starting in the 1730s…Chardin, made painting after painting in which engrossment, reflection, reverie, obliviousness, and related states are represented with a persuasiveness equal to that achieved by the greatest masters of the past, and by doing so perpetuated as much of what I shall call the absorptive tradition as it was in one man’s power to keep alive. Indeed Chardin did more than simply perpetuate that tradition. He concentrated or ‘purified’ it by separating the representation of absorption from other objects and concerns with which previously it had been mixed. In particular, he secularized the absorptive tradition – more accurately, it is in his genre paintings that the process of secularization begun in the previous century (chiefly in the Low Countries) and continued by Watteau and De Troy was brought to completion...he both naturalized and domesticated that tradition…largely owing to his endeavors the representation of absorption became a peculiarly French concern, and…following Northern precedents, he located the experience of absorption in the home, or at any rate in absolutely ordinary surroundings.

The special character of Chardin’s achievement is perhaps the most evident in his depictions of children and young people playing games or engaged in apparently trivial amusements – for example, The Soap Bubble…Chardin appears to have been struck precisely by the depth of absorption which those activities tended naturally to elicit from those engaged in them….he appears to have done all he could to make that depth of absorption manifest to the beholder, most importantly by singling out in each picture at least one salient detail that functions as a sign of the figure’s obliviousness to everything but the operation he or she is intent upon performing.”

Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality. Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 43-7.


Marianne Michel notes that contemporary opinions of Bubble Blower as ‘naïve’ were positive:

“An advertisement for the print in the May 1738 edition of Mercure de France emphasized the painting’s “naive and true expression. “ Naïve had a positive meaning according to an entry in Diderot’s Encyclopedia: ‘Everything that is true is not naïve, but everything that is naïve is true. Almost all of the figures of Poussin are naïve, that is perfectly and purely that which they should be.’”

Marianne Roland Michel, Chardin (Paris: Hazan 1994), 197-8.


Related artworks:

The Game of Knucklebones, 1735 (Baltimore Museum of Art)

Similar subjects by other artists:

Karel Dujardin, Boy Blowing Bubbles. Allergory on the Transitoriness and Brevity of Life, 1663 (Statens Museum for Kunst,  Copenhagen)

Caspar Netscher, Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, 1679 (private collection)

Thomas Couture, Soap Bubbles, 1859 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Boy with a Peep Show, 1780 (Portland Art Museum, Oregon)

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 1 November 1699
Died: Paris, 6 December 1779
Nationality: French