Jean-Siméon Chardin - Soap Bubbles

by Alexandra Tuschka


Gently and with great concentration, a finely trimmed boy blows a soap bubble through a small tube. It has already grown to considerable size! To stabilise himself, he has placed his arm on the stone ledge of the window. Here we can see the white sleeves of the shirt. In general, this youth has put a lot of time into his appearance. His hair is finely combed back and knotted into a plait with a black ribbon, but there is a thick corkscrew curl on either side of his cheeks. Another child with a funny cap has probably climbed up on his toes to watch the whole thing. His face is in shadow; we can make out his eyes and nose, his mouth is cut off. Chardin holds the viewer in the same tension: if the young man exaggerates, the bubble bursts. If he releases it at the right moment, it disappears into the air; if it becomes too heavy, it sinks to the ground. The soap jar next to the boy is still quite full and tells us that the two boys could thus make many more attempts.

Chardin, a French painter of the Rococo period, repeatedly painted children playing cards, playing badminton or - as here - blowing soap, a popular pastime at the time. At least three versions of this motif are known to exist, differing only in their choice of framing. Here, for example, we see a portrait format that reveals a view of a deciduous tree or bush that romantically surrounds the scene. In another version, at the Metropolitan Museum, Chardin reduced the scene to a square, making it even more intimate. Like a "zoom" in a film, we as viewers are brought even closer and can see the delicate reflections of light on the soap bubble come to life.

To what extent the whole subject is to be understood in the sense of the "Homo Bulla" iconography remains questionable. Especially in the Netherlands, soap bubbles and also soap-bubbling children became a vanitas expression. The theme was popular in 17th century Dutch prints, which were widely used in France. Life was equated with a soap bubble, as it too could end at any time. In this engraving by Hendrick Goltzius, we see this same theme with a child leaning on a skull and playing with soap bubbles. In this case, it is more likely to be understood that Chardin wanted to depict the everyday games of children, as he did in other paintings, but without implying a deeper layer of meaning. With such light and playful motifs, the painter fits in well with his epoch. Compared to other of his fellow Rococo painters, he remained quite realistic. Nevertheless, he skilfully keeps the viewer in suspense. The viewer is challenged to think the motif through to its conclusion.



Jean-Siméon Chardin - Soap Bubbles

Oil on canvas, 74.6 x 93.0 cm, ca. 1733-34, National Gallery of Art, Washington


Jean-Siméon Chardin - Soap Bubbles

Oil on canvas, ca. 1733-34, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Hendrick Goltzius - Homo Bulla

Copper engraving, 1594, 21.3 x 15.7 c,. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam