Chardin: Balancing the Composition
The hidden geometry in 'Glass of Water and Coffee Pot'
Chardin's 'Glass of Water and Coffee Pot' contains many of the key elements of his deceptively simple still lifes. His subject matter is always secondary to his search for the compositional balance of tone and colour. The subject comprises three common kitchen items arranged on a concrete shelf: a glass of water, a charred copper coffee pot and a few cloves of garlic. It is the harmonies and contrasts that he builds into the visual elements of these ordinary objects that make this painting extraordinary.
The glass and coffee pot are both truncated cones, but the shape of one is an inversion of the other. The balance of these two opposite forms creates a dialogue between their shapes. This balance of opposites continues through other elements: the glass is light, transparent, cold, smooth and reflective, while the coffee pot is dark, opaque, warm, rough and charred with soot. Even the details of these objects are carefully balanced as the handle of the coffee pot and the glass from the water level up, both occupy the same horizontal strip on the picture plane.
Chardin balances the tonal values of the glass and the coffee pot by creating a counterchange with the background. He carefully graduates the tone of the background from dark on the right to light on the left. This results in a contrast with both objects: the glass looks brighter against its dark background while the coffee pot looks darker as its background becomes lighter.
There is a basic rule of composition that states you should not have a long unbroken line parallel to the bottom of the picture, as this creates an area of 'dead space'. Chardin introduces the garlic and its foliage to break the long line of the shelf and to enhance the illusion of space at the front of the picture. They also act as a compositional device to lead the viewer's eye into the painting and to link all the objects together. As softer organic forms, they create a welcome contrast to the hard geometric shapes of the glass and coffee pot.