We usually see the pictures hanging on our walls only out of the corner of an eye as we’re hurrying past them. But every once in a while, we pause, look up from our busyness, and find ourselves drawn to one of them.
One of the things that distinguishes painting from the other arts is that it invites us to become still. A painting moves us by first stopping us in our tracks.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s The Silver Goblet exemplifies how a painting does this. It stops our use of the things it pictures and invites us to see them as if for the first time. Ordinarily, we don’t take time to heed such objects. But here a providential light allows them to reveal themselves to us by uniting them in silent rapport. A curving line joins the three apples to the edge of the bowl and to their reflection in the goblet. The circularity of light and line creates a kind of stillness. The artist hasn’t arranged this stillness; he simply testifies to it.
Paintings such as this evoke gratitude for the commonplace. Chestnuts, ripening apples, a bowl—these are all everyday things. Chardin could have found them almost anywhere. His painting is profoundly democratic: irrespective of our class or rank, these are the kinds of things on which all of us rely. Need is the...