Proust A to Z

Abécédaire: C

Cattleyas (orchids)

Proust depicts an astonishing variety of flowers as manifestations of beauty and as symbols of desire and sexuality. Here is a famous example of the latter. Charles Swann, a notorious womanizer, is unusually shy with Odette, known to be a courtesan. When they finally do make love, this comes about as the result of their being jostled together during a carriage ride. After the jolt he straightens the cattleya orchids she is wearing in her bodice. "To do a cattleya" becomes their secret expression for making love.

And long afterwards, when the rearrangement (or, rather, the ritual pretence of a rearrangement) of her cattleyas had quite fallen into desuetude, the metaphor "Do a cattleya," transmuted into a simple verb which they would employ without thinking when they wished to refer to the act of physical possession....

Swann's Way 1: 331

Et, bien plus tard, quand l'arrangement (ou le simulacre d'arrangement) des catleyas, fut depuis longtemps tombé en désuétude, la métaphore «faire catleya», devenue un simple vocable qu'ils employaient sans y penser quand ils voulaient signifier l'acte de la possession physique....

Du côté de chez Swann 1: 230


See The Quotable Proust.


See The Quotable Proust


See The Quotable Proust.

Chardin, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon (1699-1779)

In November 1895, Proust wrote to Pierre Mainguet, publisher of the Revue hebdomadaire, wondering whether his readers might be interested in a "little study of the philosophy of art, if the term is not too pretentious, in which I try to show how great painters initiate us into a knowledge and love of the external world" by opening our eyes. The artist whom Proust had chosen as his example was Chardin, whose still lifes reveal the quiet beauty of the most common objects. Mainguet declined the offer; Proust's essay was published posthumously.

In his essay on Chardin, Proust expressed for the first time one of his "laws" or truths: art always results from the vision unique to each artist and not from the beauty of the object depicted. He later attributed the basic ideas from the Chardin essay to Elstir, the fictional painter in In Search of Lost Time.

From the essay on Chardin:

The pleasure you get from his painting of a room where someone sits sewing, a pantry, a kitchen, a sideboard, is the pleasure—seized on the wing, redeemed from the transient, ascertained, pondered, perpetuated—that he got from the sight of a sideboard, a kitchen, a pantry, a room where someone sits sewing. (…) You have already experienced it subconsciously, this pleasure one gets from the sight of everyday scenes and inanimate objects, otherwise it would not have risen in your heart when Chardin summoned it in his commanding and brilliant accents. Your consciousness was too inert to reach down to it. It had to wait for Chardin to come and take hold of it and raise it to the level of your conscious mind.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 325. Translation altered.

Le plaisir que vous donne sa peinture d'une chambre où l'on coud, d'une office, d'une cuisine, d'un buffet, c'est, saisi au passage, dégagé de l'instant, approfondi, éternisé, le plaisir que lui donnait la vue d'un buffet, d'une cuisine, d'une office, d'une chambre où l'on coud. (…) Vous l'éprouviez déjà inconsciemment, ce plaisir que donne le spectacle de la vie humble et de la nature morte, sans cela il ne se serait pas levé dans votre cœur, quand Chardin avec son langage impératif et brillant est venu l'appeler. Votre conscience était trop inerte pour descendre jusqu'à lui, Il a dû attendre que Chardin vînt le prendre en vous pour l'élever jusqu'à elle.

Contre Sainte-Beuve, 373-74.

Chardin will have been but a man who took pleasure in his dining-room among its fruits and glassware; but a man of more intense sensibilities whose uncontainable pleasure brimmed over in caressing brushwork and deathless colors.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 325. Translation altered.

Chardin n'aura été qu'un homme qui se plaisait dans sa salle à manger, entre les fruits et les verres, mais un homme d'une conscience plus vive, dont le plaisir trop intense aura débordé en touches onctueuses, en couleurs éternelles.

Contre Sainte-Beuve, 374

Chardin [combines] things and people in those rooms which are more than a thing and perhaps even more than a person, rooms which are the scenes of their lives, the law of their affinities or contrarieties, the floating, pervasive scent of their charm, the confidant, mute and yet indiscreet, of their soul, the shrine of their past. As befits people and things who have lived quietly together for a long time, needing one another, finding as well an obscure pleasure in each other's company, everything in such a room breathes friendship.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 332. Translation altered.

Chardin [réunit] objets et personnes dans ces chambres qui sont plus qu'un objet et peut-être aussi qu'une personne, qui sont le lieu de leur vie, la loi de leurs affinités ou de leurs contrastes, le parfum flottant et contenu de leur charme, confident silencieux et pourtant indiscret de leur âme, le sanctuaire de leur passé. Comme entre êtres et choses qui vivent depuis longtemps ensemble avec simplicité, ayant besoin les uns des autres, goûtant aussi des plaisirs obscurs à se trouver les uns avec les autres, tout ici est amitié.

Contre Sainte-Beuve, 379

Chardin has taught us that a pear is as living as a woman, a kitchen crock as beautiful as a precious stone. The painter has proclaimed the divine equality of all things to the mind that reflects upon them, in the light that embellishes them. He has made us leave behind a false idealism in order to explore a more ample reality where, on all sides, we rediscover beauty, no longer the diminished prisoner of convention or false good taste, but free, strong, universal; by opening up for us the real world, he launches us into the open sea of beauty.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 334. Translation altered.

Nous avions appris de Chardin qu'une poire est aussi vivante qu'une femme, qu'une poterie vulgaire est aussi belle qu'une pierre précieuse. Le peintre avait proclamé la divine égalité de toutes choses devant l'esprit qui les considère, devant la lumière qui les embellit. Il nous avait fait sortir d'un faux idéal pour pénétrer largement dans la réalité, pour y retrouver partout la beauté, non plus prisonnière affaiblie d'une convention ou d'un faux goût, mais libre, forte, universelle: en nous ouvrant le monde réel, c'est sur la mer de beauté qu'il nous entraîne.

Contre Sainte-Beuve, 380

Many years later, in 1920, Proust answered to a newspaper survey Opinion about which paintings should be selected for a French Tribune at the Louvre. His selection included several works by Chardin, indicating his great admiration for that artist: Portrait de Chardin, Portrait de Mme Chardin, and Nature morte. To these he added Millet's Le Printemps, Manet's Olympia, an unspecified Renoir or La Barque de Dante, or Corot's La Cathédrale de Chartres; Watteau's L'Indifférent or L'Embarquement.

Chardin in the Search

The servant Françoise alters and renders "charming" a hand-me-down hat, whose original style "horrified" the Narrator's mother, by adding "with simple but unerring taste" a "loop of ribbon that would have delighted one in a portrait by Chardin or Whistler."

Within a Budding Grove 2: 309

(K. Yoshikawa believes that this passage was inspired by ribbons worn by Chardin in his self-portraits, a blue ribbon in Self-portrait with Spectacles and a pink one in Self-portrait with an Eye-shade. See Dictionnaire Marcel Proust, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004.)

Proust uses Chardin as an example to illustrate how the public generally fails to understand new works of genuine art, works that are initially seen as "horrors," but with time take their place among the masterpieces.

See The Guermantes Way 3: 574-75 and Time Regained 6: 525

See Genius in "Quotable Proust"

Chardin is also mentioned in The Fugitive 5: 848

K. Yoshikawa finds allusions to Chardin in two passages that he believes were inspired by Proust's 1895 essay. See Dictionnaire Marcel Proust, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004. In the first passage, the Narrator is seated in the dining-room of the Grand-Hôtel at Balbec and reflects on Elstir's paintings that he recently saw in the artist's studio. We see in these passages that Proust rivals in words the pictures that Elstir or Chardin creates with paint: was no longer solely towards the sea that I would turn my eyes. Since I had seen such things depicted in water-colors by Elstir, I sought to find again in reality, I cherished as though for their poetic beauty, the broken gestures of the knives still lying across one another, the swollen convexity of a discarded napkin into which the sun introduced a patch of yellow velvet, the half-empty glass which thus showed to greater advantage the noble sweep of its curved sides and, in the heart of its translucent crystal, clear as frozen daylight, some dregs of wine, dark but glittering with reflected lights, the displacement of solid objects, the transmutation of liquids by the effect of light and shade, the shifting colors of the plums which passed from green to blue and from blue to golden yellow in the half-plundered dish, the promenade of the antiquated chairs that came twice daily to take their places round the white cloth spread on the table as on an altar at which were celebrated the rites of the palate, and where in the hollows of the oyster-shells a few drops of lustral water had remained as in tiny holy-water stoups of stone; I tried to find beauty where I had never imagined before that it could exist, in the most ordinary things, in the profundities of "still life."

Within a Budding Grove 2: 613

...ce n'était plus uniquement du côté de la mer que je regardais. Depuis que j'en avais vu dans des aquarelles d'Elstir, je cherchais à retrouver dans la réalité, j'aimais comme quelque chose de poétique, le geste interrompu des couteaux encore de travers, la rondeur bombée d'une serviette défaite où le soleil intercale un morceau de velours jaune, le verre à demi vidé qui montre mieux ainsi le noble évasement de ses formes et au fond de son vitrage translucide et pareil à une condensation du jour, un reste de vin sombre, mais scintillant de lumières, le déplacement des volumes, la transmutation des liquides par l'éclairage, l'altération des prunes qui passent du vert au bleu et du bleu à l'or dans le compotier déjà à demi dépouillé, la promenade des chaises vieillottes qui deux fois par jour viennent s'installer autour de la nappe dressée sur la table ainsi que sur un autel où sont célébrées les fêtes de la gourmandise et sur laquelle au fond des huîtres quelques gouttes d'eau lustrale restent comme dans de petits bénitiers de pierre, j'essayais de trouver la beauté là où je ne m'étais jamais figuré qu'elle fût, dans les choses les plus usuelles, dans la vie profonde des «natures mortes».

À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs 2: 224

The second allusion has its origin in the description Proust wrote in the 1895 essay of Chardin's painting The Skate.

Now come into the kitchen, where the entrance is strictly guarded by a feudality of crocks of all sizes, faithful, hardworking servants, a handsome, industrious race. Knives, brisk plain-dealers, lie on the table in a menacing idleness that intends no harm. But a strange monster hangs above your head, a skate, still fresh as the sea it rippled in; and the sight of it mixes the foreign charm of the sea, the calms, the tempests it matched and outrode....It has been gutted, and you can admire the beauty of its delicate immense structural design, painted with red blood, azure nerves, and white sinews like the nave of a polychrome cathedral.

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919, translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 328

Maintenant venez jusqu'à la cuisine dont l'entrée est sévèrement gardée par la tribu des vases de toute grandeur, serviteurs capables et fidèles, race laborieuse et belle. Sur la table les couteaux actifs, qui vont droit au but, reposent dans une oisiveté menaçante et inoffensive. Mais au-dessus de vous un monstre étrange, frais encore comme la mer où il ondoya, une raie est suspendue, dont la vue mêle au désir de la gourmandise le charme curieux du calme ou des tempêtes de la mer dont elle fut le formidable témoin....La raie est ouverte et vous pouvez admirer la beauté de son architecture délicate et vaste, teintée de sang rouge, de nerfs bleus et de muscles blancs, comme la nef d'une cathédrale polychrome.

Contre Sainte-Beuve, 375-76

Here is a similar passage from the Search: order to preserve...the idea that I was on the uttermost promontory of the earth, I compelled myself to look further afield, to notice only the sea, to seek in it the effects described by Baudelaire and to let my gaze fall upon our table only on days when there was set on it some gigantic fish, some marine monster, which unlike the knives and forks was contemporary with the primitive epochs in which the Ocean first began to teem with life, at the time of the Cimmerians, a fish whose body with its numberless vertebrae, its blue and pink veins, had been constructed by nature, but according to an architectural plan, like a polychrome cathedral of the deep.

Within a Budding Gove 2: 372-73

...afin de garder...l'idée que j'étais sur la pointe extrême de la terre, je m'efforçais de regarder plus loin, de ne voir que la mer, d'y chercher des effets décrits par Baudelaire et de ne laisser tomber mes regards...sur notre table que les jours où y était servi quelque vaste poisson, monstre marin, qui au contraire des couteaux et des fourchettes était contemporain des époques primitives où la vie commençait à affluer dans l'Océan, au temps des Cimmériens, et duquel le corps aux innombrables vertèbres, aux nerfs bleus et roses avait été construit par la nature, mais selon un plan architectural, comme une polychrome cathédrale de la mer.

À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs 2: 54-55