Both Jean Simeon Chardin and Thomas Couture painted individual works called Soap Bubbles. A comparison of these two paintings will reveal how the artists employed form, symbolism, and technique in similar and contrasting ways to address the themes of youth and life’s transience. While Chardin elevates youth through his subject, composition, and lighting, Couture offers a contemplative, melancholic depiction of youth in the work’s form and color. Through nuanced symbolism, balanced geometry, and his manipulation of weightiness, Chardin’s Soap Bubbles embodies the duality of life’s impermanence and significance. Couture presents his Soap Bubbles as a philosophical meditation on mankind’s inescapability of transience, employing straightforward allegories and the dramatic use of light and color. Both paintings evoke similar themes and imagery, but the artists present different conceptions of youth and impermanence.
Soap Bubbles by Chardin ennobles youth in the painting’s subject and form. The painting features a young man blowing a bubble, an activity usually categorized as playful and trivial. But instead of a frolicsome mood, Soap Bubbles emits an aura of seriousness and intensity. The central figure stares intently at the bubble, concentrating on his task. The younger child observes, like an apprentice learning a trade. The viewer imagines the tense hush of the scene as the boys avoid popping the bubble. In this way, Chardin elevates the boys’ activity from an entertaining pastime to a pensive occupation. This effect is emphasized by the work’s composition, lighting, and technique, which narrow the onlooker’s attention and encourage the viewer to become absorbed in the moment. The rectangular window frames the characters, and the viewer’s eye naturally extends the rounded vines to create an imagined circle around the boys. These compositional components draw the onlooker’s attention directly to the youth, pulling the viewer into the intensity of the bubble-blowing moment.
The contrast in lighting also contributes to this effect. The dark, somber background greatly contrasts with the brightest points in the painting—the young man’s forehead and hands, the cup of soapy water, and the highlights on the bubble. These objects are the most important aspects of the young man’s action, and their contrast to the background beckons the viewer’s attention right away. These spotlights demonstrate the value that Chardin attributes to the physical action of blowing bubbles. Chardin attaches sincere importance to this seemingly trivial hobby. The artist’s painting technique also elevates youth. Most of the piece is smooth, but the young man’s forehead is layered with very thick, visible paint. Chardin’s technique to highlight the forehead symbolizes the young man’s intelligence and active mind. As demonstrated by Chardin’s subject, composition, lighting, and technique, his Soap Bubbles elevates the importance of youthful action.
Thomas Couture’s approach to this theme reflects similarities and differences to Chardin’s painting. Couture’s Soap Bubbles also bestows seriousness to youth, but he utilizes form, composition, color, and technique to present a philosophical moralism on the melancholic, futile state of childhood. Like Chardin’s painting, Couture’s work does not portray the playfulness of a child’s pastime. The muted tones and soft, diffused light create a somber atmosphere of pervasive quietness. While Chardin elevates the boys’ activity to an occupation by absorbing the viewer into the action, Couture’s painting represents soap bubbles as a philosophical symbol, rather than an action, to comment on youth. Unlike the young men in Chardin’s piece, the singular boy in Soap Bubbles does not look at the bubbles he has blown. Instead, he stares off into the distance. If it were not for the straw in his relaxed right hand, the viewer might not realize that the boy blew the soap bubbles at all. The onlooker naturally follows the boy’s gaze, directing the eye to the various items around him. One may not even notice the soap bubbles until after a few minutes of examining the piece, since there are so many objects around the figure. In direct contrast to Chardin’s painting, Couture’s de-emphasis on the action of blowing bubbles confirms his utilization of bubbles as a meaningful symbol, on which the viewer should contemplate for philosophical meaning.
Similar to Chardin’s goal to capture the viewer in the moment’s action, Couture produces a scene that invites the onlooker to participate in the character’s melancholic contemplation. The colors and composition are instrumental in creating the work’s all-encompassing somber feeling. The boy sits in solitude, encircled by subdued colors of shadow and faint light. His leisurely, reclining pose and dark, baggy clothing portray his body as heavy and sinking, especially in relation to the lightweight, floating bubbles at the top corner. This impression of heaviness emphasizes the boy’s melancholy. The closed books on the desk signal that the young boy is not thinking about his studies but is pondering greater philosophical thoughts, symbolized by the upward tilt of his chin. In this way, the boy in Couture’s Soap Bubbles is a symbol for the melancholic state of youth. The boy is an exemplar to viewers, whom Couture invites to contemplate the heavy gloom of childhood. Both Chardin and Couture’s paintings relay the seriousness of youth, but they present contrasting views on the state of youthfulness as elevated or dejected.
The artists’ different perspectives on youth influence their works’ commentaries on the transience of life. As noted by the Metropolitan Museum plaques next to both paintings, bubbles are traditionally an artistic symbol to represent life’s impermanence. Chardin creates a sense of balance in subject, composition, and weight that underlines his claim that life’s transiency does not contradict (rather, it enhances) the enduring significance of human life. The bubble is fragile, and the onlooker can sense the inevitability of its destruction. The rip in the young man’s sleeve foreshadows the bubble’s bursting. These symbols assert Chardin’s acceptance of the destined impermanence of life, and, particularly, of youth.
The artist demonstrates that such transiency is an integral component of life’s durable meaning by unifying contradictions. The bubble is the most delicate form in the painting. Through the translucent bubble, viewers see the stone shelf, which is the sturdiest object in the scene. The artist implicitly combines the elements of fragility and solidity, illustrating that youth’s transiency is essential to the stable significance in life. The utilization of geometry also contributes to Chardin’s synthesis of impermanence and permanence. The contour of the young man’s bent arms and head forms a triangle, the strongest shape. But at each corner of the triangle’s base is a symbol of fragility—a crack in the stone shelf on the left and the breakable bubble on the right. Soap Bubbles demonstrates that the fleetingness of childhood provides a foundation for life’s meaning. The inevitability of youth’s transiency procures meaningful stability to the human condition. Chardin elucidates the importance of transiency in his manipulation of weight. The bubble is the lightest object, but it is placed at the bottom of the canvas. This composition attributes a perceived weightiness to the bubble, which symbolically bestows importance to the transiency of youth. Chardin continues to elevate youth by crediting youth’s certain fleetingness as the basis for an overarching significance of life.
Depicting a more pessimistic outlook, Couture’s Soap Bubbles offers a somber philosophical meditation on the transience of life through allegory, light, and technique. This painting brims with allegorical symbols. The title suggests the prominence of symbolic soap bubbles, directly connecting Couture’s piece to Chardin’s with the theme of transiency. Unlike Chardin’s weighty bubble at the bottom of his painting, the two bubbles in Couture’s work look especially lightweight and fragile at the top of the canvas. Due to their placement, viewers imagine that the bubbles are floating away and will soon disappear from the scene. This difference illustrates Couture’s pure, frank perception of life’s transiency, contrasting with Chardin’s nuanced understanding that youth’s transiency ushers in meaningful existence. Soap Bubbles by Couture reinforces a straightforward portrayal of life’s impermanence with the symbol of the wilted laurel. The Metropolitan Museum accounts that the wilted laurel suggests the fleeting nature of worldly honors and praise. The artist intentionally included this image to underline the futility of worldly life.
These allegories about the impermanence of life explain the melancholic state of youth that Couture depicts. The lighting, color, and technique construct a depressing representation of youth, characterized by its fleeting nature and inevitable decline. The boy’s bright face glows with youth against the dark background, but the fading color of the chair and the dustiness of his coat suggest that the boy, too, is destined to fade. This quality of fading is accentuated by the painting’s brush strokes, which feature crisp edges that blur into blended, muted strokes. This effect is especially evident in the boy’s clothing; the outlines are clear, but the majority of his coat is indistinct in detail with cloudy, soft brush strokes. These techniques express Couture’s meditation on the transience of youth and the melancholy it invokes. Chardin asserts the inherent meaning that derives from youthful brevity, but Couture further emphasizes the despair of youth’s impermanence by surrounding the soap bubbles with impending, dark shadows that underscore the negativity of life’s transience.
Both Soap Bubbles paintings provoke the viewer to reflect upon the implications of youth’s impermanence on the meaning of life. The artists manipulate symbols, color, light, weight, composition, and painting methods to represent their complex expressions of youth and transience. Chardin and Couture’s works employ related techniques and subjects, but they ultimately offer contrasting responses to these themes. An examination of the two paintings together grants the viewer with a deeper understanding of these philosophical topics and reveals the intricate significance of both artistic approaches.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Masterpieces of Western Art with Professor Mangone at Columbia University