Bubbles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pastime of blowing bubbles has been entertaining youth - and the young at heart - for centuries. It brought joy to children both wealthy and poor, as mostly everyone could find a wire to twist into a circle and some soap for blowing bubbles. New York's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art has three exquisite pieces of art depicting this whimsical distraction throughout history and because of this institution's generosity, we can share them with you. And proof that bubbles have been enchanting us for ages - from Renaissance art to our Fine Fragrance collection.


Soap Bubbles 

Oil on canvas

Artist: Jean Siméon Chardin, French

Jean Siméon Chardin was born in Paris in 1699 and spent his entire life there. Such a parochial existence was unusual for an artist of Chardin's critical, official, and international reputation. His life was essentially uneventful, if such a statement is appropriate to a man who produced some of the greatest works of art in the eighteenth century. He learned what he needed from the old masters he saw in the French royal collection, in the collections of Parisian amateurs, or passing through the active Parisian art market of the day. [1]


The idle play of children was a favorite theme of Chardin, a naturalist among painters. Here he drew inspiration from the seventeenth-century Dutch genre tradition for both the format and the subject. While it is not certain that he intended the picture to carry a message, soap bubbles were then understood to allude to the transience of life. Chardin often painted successful compositions in multiples: later versions of Soap Bubbles belong to the Los Angeles County Museum and to the National Gallery of Art, Washington. [2]  


Blowing Soap Bubbles Under the Plum Blossom

circa 1750

Woodblock print; ink and color on paper

Artist: Suzuki Harunobu, Japanese

A painter and print designer, Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770) drew his subject matter not only from the urban entertainments of the city of Edo—what was known in his day as ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world”—but also from the classical poetry of China and Japan and scenes of everyday life. Harunobu’s imagery often conveys amusing subtexts that appealed especially to the cognoscenti of his day, but it was the striking color of his prints that drove his success at a critical moment in Japanese printmaking—and that has shaped his legacy ever since.


In this print the device is again employed of a classical poem incorporated into a cloudlike formation at the top. The poem reads, freely:

"I do not want my mind to be tainted
by the smell and color of the plums,
but the wind stealthily carries
the mysterious scent and color into my sleeve."

Under a plum blossom tree, a mother blows bubbles as her son watches with amusement. The use of the plum, a symbol of sexuality and eroticism, coupled with the mother's activity and the child's celebratory dancing, seems to suggest the act of procreation and the value of maternity. [2}    


Soap Bubbles

Oil on canvas

Thomas Couture, French

Thomas Couture (1815 - 1879), French historical and portrait painter, a pupil of Gros and Delaroche. He is chiefly remembered for his vast ‘orgy’ picture The Romans of the Decadence (Mus. d'Orsay, Paris), which was the sensation of the 1847 Salon. As with other ‘one-hit wonders’, his reputation has sunk with that of his big work, which now is often cited as the classic example of the worst type of bombastic academic painting, impeccable in every detail and totally false in overall effect. His more informal works, however, are often much livelier in conception and technique, and as a teacher he encouraged direct study from landscape. Manet was his best-known pupil, and others included Fantin-Latour and Puvis de Chavannes. [4]

 A schoolboy, identifiable by the books on the desk, contemplates soap bubbles, traditional symbols of the transience of life. A wilting laurel wreath on the wall behind him suggests the fleeting nature of praise and honors. The word "immortalité," inscribed on the paper inserted in the mirror, reinforces the painting’s allegorical content. [2]



[1] National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1127.html
[2] Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org
[3] Portland Art Museum, https://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/suzuki-harunobu/
[4] The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)