Every time I walked through the splendid Chardin exhibition at the Metropolitan [1] this summer, I was struck by how impossible it was to imagine how this eighteenth-century master’s paintings looked to his contemporaries. Not that there’s a lack of documentation. Quite the contrary. The work of Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779) was thoroughly discussed by the art critics of his day, most famously by Denis Diderot, his friend and perhaps his most illuminating commentator—certainly the best writer among them. The critical literature that survives from Chardin’s lifetime, provoked by his submissions to the Salons from 1737 until 1779 and his widely disseminated prints, contains everything from adulatory poems and over-the-top rhapsodies to clear-eyed descriptions of particular still lifes of musical instruments, baskets of fruit, and humble kitchen objec ...