Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Broken Eggs

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, Tournus 1725–1805 Paris)
Oil on canvas
28 3/4 x 37 in. (73 x 94 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 615
Broken Eggs attracted favorable comment when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1757. One critic noted that the young serving girl had a noble pose worthy of a history painter.

The canvas was painted in Rome, but the principal source may have been a seventeenth-century Dutch work by Frans van Mieris the Elder (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), which Greuze would have known from an engraving. The broken eggs symbolize the loss of the girl's virginity.

Greuze was of modest birth, the son of a roofer. He received his early training in Lyons and in Paris studied drawing with Charles Joseph Natoire. In 1755, after he was accepted as a candidate member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in the category of genre painter, Greuze presented five works for exhibition at the Salon. He then set off as the traveling companion of the Abbé Louis Gougenot (1724–1767) for the more or less obligatory visit to Italy. They settled in Rome in January 1756, and in May, when Greuze declined to accompany Gougenot on the journey home, Natoire, by then the director of the Académie de France in Rome, offered the impoverished younger artist housing and a studio for the balance of his stay. Greuze departed for Paris before April 20, 1757, intending to show his Italian work at the biennial Salon.

Greuze was ambitious and intractable. While in Rome, he was not immune to the influence of antiquity but he seems to have been uninterested in ancient history and mythology, preferring modern subjects with moral overtones. In spring 1756 he painted Broken Eggs for Gougenot and in late February 1757 he completed the so-called Neapolitan Gesture (Worcester Art Museum) for the same patron. Both were exhibited in 1757; they are the same size and seem to constitute a narrative pair. Greuze gave the present picture a long descriptive title in the published list of works on view at the Salon: Une Mère grondant un jeune Homme pour avoir renversé un Panier d’Oeufs que sa Servante apportoit du Marché. Un Enfant tente de raccomoder un oeuf cassé. (A mother scolding a young man for having overturned a basket of eggs that her servant brought from the market. A child attempts to repair a broken egg). It is evident from the pout of the girl—as well as from the scowling child who is holding an eggshell and a dripping yoke and who provides the subtext—that something more than eggs has been broken, and in the eighteenth century it would have been understood, even if not directly stated, that it was the girl’s virtue the youth had violated.

Greuze must have been gratified when his 1757 exhibits were hung near those of the academician Chardin. The younger painter’s genre subjects would not achieve equivalent official success, however, which would be a source of grave disappointment. Greuze’s Italian subjects evade interpretation and can be read as dark and unoptimistic in mood, but Broken Eggs is nevertheless an astonishingly skillful performance, especially in view of the fact that several years before, when the artist arrived in Paris from Burgundy, he had been little more than competent.

[Katharine Baetjer 2011]
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed (lower right): Greuze f. Roma / 1756
Abbé Louis Gougenot, later Abbé de Chezal-Benoît, Rome and Paris (until d. 1767; inv., 1767, no. 86, with pendant, as "Deux Tableaux pendants"); his brother, Georges Gougenot de Croissy (1767–possibly until d. 1784); sale, Paillet, Paris, April 18–25, 1803, no. 90, with pendant for Fr 3,000 to Delaroche or more probably to Tessier; Count Nikolai Nikitich Demidov, San Donato palace, near Florence (until d. 1828); Prince Anatole Nikolaievich Demidov, San Donato palace (1828–70; his sale, Pillet, Paris, February 26, 1870, no. 107, with pendant for Fr 126,000 to Hertford); Richard Seymour, 4th Marquess of Hertford, Paris (d. 1870); his natural son, Sir Richard Wallace, Paris and London (1870–75; sold for £5,292 to Dudley); William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, London (1875–d. 1885); William Humble Ward, 2nd Earl of Dudley, London (from 1885); Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, New York (until 1895); William K. Vanderbilt, New York (1895–d. 1920)
Paris. Salon. 1757, no. 112 (as "Une Mere grondant un jeune Homme pour avoir renversé un Panier d'Oeufs que sa Servante apportoit du Marché. Un Enfant tente de raccommoder un Oeuf cassé.").

London. Victoria and Albert Museum, Bethnal Green Branch. "Collection of Paintings, . . . and other Works of Art lent for Exhibition by Sir Richard Wallace," 1872–75, no. 468.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "French Painting and Sculpture of the XVIII Century," November 6, 1935–January 5, 1936, no. 32.

Toledo Museum of Art. "The Spirit of Modern France: An Essay on Painting in Society, 1745–1946," November–December 1946, no. 8.

Art Gallery of Toronto. "The Spirit of Modern France: An Essay on Painting in Society, 1745–1946," January–February 1947, no. 8.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 70).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 305.

Hartford. Wadsworth Atheneum. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725–1805," December 1, 1976–January 23, 1977, no. 9.

San Francisco. California Palace of the Legion of Honor. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725–1805," March 5–May 1, 1977, no. 9.

Dijon. Musée des Beaux-Arts. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725–1805," June 4–July 31, 1977, no. 9.

Ottawa. National Gallery of Canada. "The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting," June 6–September 7, 2003, no. 64.

Washington. National Gallery of Art. "The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting," October 12, 2003–January 11, 2004, no. 64.

Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting," February 8–May 9, 2004, no. 64.

J. J. Barthélemy. Letter to the comte de Caylus. May 12, 1756 [published in "Voyage en Italie de M. l'abbé Barthelemy . . . ," Paris, An X (1801), p. 138], describes the painting, adding that "la figure de la fille a une position si noble, qu'elle pourrait orner un tableau d'histoire".

[E.-C. Fréron]. "Lettre XV, Exposition des ouvrages de peinture, de sculpture & de gravûre." Année littéraire 7 (1757), pp. 347–48 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 7, no. 88; McWilliam 1991, no. 0103), praises the picture: "Avec quel plaisir on considère une jeune fille aimable, affligée d'avoir renversé un panier d'œufs! Sa tête est charmante; elle est peinte avec une belle douceur, & pleine d'expression. On trouve dans le reste du tableau, avec la plus grande vérité, une force singulière de couleur, & un effet très-piquant".

[Charles Joseph] Natoire. Letter to the marquis de Marigny. February 22, 1757 [published in Goncourt 1880, p. 332], notes that Greuze had just completed the pendant to a painting he had made for l'abbé Gougenot.

"Article IV, beaux-arts: Arts agréables, peinture." Mercure de France (October 1757), p. 167.

John Smith. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. Vol. 8, London, 1837, p. 430, no. 113, as engraved by Moitte; points out that the boy's bow and arrow allude to "the danger of playing with Cupid's darts".

Jules Renouvier. Histoire de l'art pendant la Révolution. Paris, 1863, pp. 504–5.

Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siècle. Vol. 1, 3rd ed. Paris, 1880, pp. 332, 339, 350.

Ch. Normand. "J. B. Greuze." Les artistes célèbres. Paris, 1892, pp. 20, 61–62, ill. p. 66 (Veyrassat etching), sees in it Greuze influenced by Boucher.

Henry Marcel in Camille Mauclair. Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Paris, 1905, p. 40.

J. Martin and Ch. Masson. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint et dessiné de Jean-Baptiste Greuze [supplement to C. Mauclair, Jean-Baptiste Greuze]. Paris, 1905, p. 14, no. 181, ill. p. 3 (Moitte engraving), list a study, sold March 18, 1890, and a drawing heightened with pastel, signed and dated 1756, sold March 16, 1898; note an engraving by Haïd.

John Rivers. Greuze and His Models. London, 1912, pp. 125–26, 270, ill. opp. p. 126 (Moitte engraving).

Louis Hautecœur. Greuze. Paris, 1913, pp. 22, 58, 120.

"The William K. Vanderbilt Bequest." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (December 1920), p. 269.

Louis Réau. "Greuze et la Russie." L'art et les artistes 1 (1920), p. 282.

Wallace Collection Catalogues: Pictures and Drawings. 14th ed. London, 1920, p. 123.

Gaston Maugras. Le duc et la duchesse de Choiseul, leur vie intime, leurs amis et leurs temps. Paris, 1924, p. 65, states that the duchess enthusiastically bought this painting from the artist.

Wallace Collection Catalogues: Pictures and Drawings. 15th ed. London, 1928, p. 122.

Millia Davenport. The Book of Costume. New York, 1948, vol. 2, pp. 691–92, no. 1869, ill.

Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 174–75, ill., as painted in Rome between late January and May 12, 1756 for l'abbé Gougenot; suggests that Prince Demidoff probably bought it from him; notes that the minute treatment emulates seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre painters.

Anita Brookner. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze – I." Burlington Magazine 98 (May 1956), p. 158, fig. 34, illustrates Moitte's engraving after Mieris's L'Œuf cassé (fig. 35), by which Greuze was inspired, and comments on Dutch and Flemish influence.

Edgar Munhall. "Greuze." PhD diss., Yale University, 1959, part 2, pp. 8–11, 13 nn. 52, 61; part 4, p. 12, suggests that M. de Stainville, the French ambassador in Rome, may have purchased this picture, the first Greuze painted after he settled there on January 28, 1756, and that it was finished by May 12; sees in the detailed setting the inspiration of Dutch engravings and in the soft, artificial details the influence of Boucher's pastels; observes that engravings of "The Broken Eggs" and "The Neapolitan Gesture" were sold together as pendants.

Willibald Sauerländer. "Pathosfiguren im Oeuvre des Jean-Baptiste Greuze." Walter Friedlaender zum 90. Geburtstag. Ed. Georg Kauffmann and Willibald Sauerländer. Berlin, 1965, pp. 148–49, pl. 30, fig. 5, discusses Netherlandish and classical sources, commenting that the pose of the young man recalls the Farnese Hercules.

Anita Brookner. Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-century Phenomenon. Greenwich, Conn., 1972, pp. 58–59, 80, 97–98, 144, fig. 16, states that the duchesse de Grammont, sister of M. de Stainville, bought this picture from Greuze in Rome, and that sexual innuendo reigns, though the picture is based on an engraving by Moitte after Mieris.

Pierre Rosenberg. The Age of Louis XV: French Painting, 1710–1774. Exh. cat., Toledo Museum of Art. [Toledo], 1975, p. 4.

Edgar Munhall. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725–1805. Ed. Joseph Focarino. Exh. cat.Hartford, 1976, pp. 20, 40–41, no. 9, ill., notes that the same models posed for "The Neapolitan Gesture".

Mario Amaya. "The Moralist: J.-B. Greuze." Art in America (November–December 1976), pp. 85–86.

Stuart Preston. "The Revaluation of Greuze." Apollo 105 (February 1977), p. 139, fig. 9.

Antoine Schnapper. "Greuze: Un précurseur?" Connaissance des arts no. 304 (June 1977), p. 87.

Rüdiger Klessmann. "The Wadsworth Atheneum. Ausstellung: Jean-Baptiste Greuze." Pantheon 35, no. 2 (1977), p. 175.

Robert Rosenblum. "The Greuze Exhibition at Hartford and Elsewhere." Burlington Magazine 119 (February 1977), p. 146, sees in our picture and its pendant an "emotional conflict that prefigures David".

Antoine Schnapper. "Review of Edgar Munhall, 'Jean Baptiste Greuze,' 1977." Art Bulletin 60, no. 2 (June 1978), p. 374.

Michael Fried. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley, 1980, pp. 35, 191, n. 66, p. 200, n. 120, ill. p. 36, finds in our picture and "La parasseuse italienne" (fig. 17) moods of "lassitude, reverie, and psychological absence".

Otto Naumann. Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder. Doornspijk, 1981, vol. 2, p. 19, quotes the inscription on the Moitte print after Mieris alluding to the symbolism of the broken egg.

James Thompson. "A Study by Greuze for Broken Eggs." Metropolitan Museum Journal 17 (1982), pp. 47–48, ill., publishes a chalk drawing in the Albertina, Vienna, that is a study for—or after—the boy, calling him a "solemn witness to the impossibility of repairing what is broken".

Heather McPherson. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze's Italian Sojourn, 1755–57." Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 14 (1985), pp. 94–96, 99–106, fig. 4, argues that Greuze's Italian sojourn was significant for his moralizing genre subjects; compares the girl's pose to Caravaggio's "Magdalen" (Palazzo Doria, Rome); suggests that the friezelike composition used here, and the intensity of emotion and gesture anticipate the "Septimius Severus" of 1769.

Annie Scottez in Au temps de Watteau, Fragonard et Chardin: les Pays-Bas et les peintres français du XVIIIe siècle. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Lille, 1985, p. 105, under no. 61.

Philip Conisbee. Chardin. Oxford, 1986, pp. 214–15, relates it to Boucher's "The Pretty Kitchen-maid" (fig. 123).

Edgar Munhall. "The Variety of Genres in the Work of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725–1805." Porticus (1987–1988), p. 22.

Andrzej Pienkos. "'L'Oiseleur' et les trois autres 'Tableaux dans le costume italien.' Quelques remarques sur l'oeuvre de jeunesse de Jean-Baptiste Greuze." Bulletin du Musée National de Varsovie 28, no. 1–2 (1987), pp. 1, 3–4, 6, 11–13, fig. 3, notes that the background resembles interiors by Maes and Dou.

Carol S. Eliel in 1789: French Art During the Revolution. Ed. Alan Wintermute. Exh. cat., Colnaghi. New York, 1989, p. 61 n. 28.

James Thompson. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47 (Winter 1989/90), pp. 14, 21, figs. 11–13 (color, overall and details), and color details on front and back cover, as the first in a series of works in which a shattered object symbolizes lost chastity; stresses the role of the "plainclothes Cupid, silently commenting on the irreparable consequences of erotic abandon".

Emma Barker. "Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment: The Family in French Art 1755–1785." PhD diss., Courtauld Institute of Art, 1994, vol. 1, pp. 283, 487, ill.

Edgar Munhall in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 13, New York, 1996, p. 639–40, fig. 1.

JoLynn Edwards. Alexandre-Joseph Paillet: Expert et marchand de tableaux à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1996, pp. 56, 313, ill. p. 58.

Richard Rand et al. Intimate Encounters: Love and Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century France. Exh. cat., Hood Museum of Art. Hanover, N.H., 1997, pp. 57, 79, 150–51 n. 6, pp. 190–91 n. 1, fig. 59.

Hélène Guicharnaud. "Un Collectionneur parisien, ami de Greuze et de Pigalle, l'abbé Louis Gougenot (1724–1767)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 134 (July–August 1999), pp. 46, 52–53, fig. 41.

Colin B. Bailey. Jean-Baptiste Greuze: The Laundress. Los Angeles, 2000, pp. 5, 27, fig. 2 (color), notes that the genre pictures painted in Rome circulated in Paris prior to the 1757 Salon, and impressed "by their considerable seriousness and ambition".

Mark Ledbury. Sedaine, Greuze and the Boundaries of Genre. Oxford, 2000, p. 125 n. 3, pp. 135–37, 176, pl. 14, addresses Greuze's awkward rendering of bodily proportion; discusses his interest in the salacious, the anecdotal, and the theatrical; notes that the two scenes "can easily be read as a narrative of seduction and its aftermath familiar from popular theatre".

Edgar Munhall. Greuze the Draftsman. Exh. cat.London, 2002, p. 50, ill. (detail).

Colin B. Bailey in The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting. Ed. Colin B. Bailey. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. New Haven, 2003, pp. 248–50, 366, no. 64, ill. (color), points out that the earliest accounts do not allude to the salacious subject.

Mary D. Sheriff. Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France. Chicago, 2004, pp. 209–10, fig. 55.

Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley. The Wallace Collection's Pictures: A Complete Catalogue. London, 2004, p. xxvii, ill. (color).

Bernadette Fort. "The Greuze Girl: The Invention of a Pictorial Paradigm." French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Philip Conisbee. Washington, 2007, pp. 131–33, 147 nn. 13, 20, 23, fig. 2, notes that that the servant "is, literally, a 'fallen' girl'" by comparison with the young lady in "The Neapolitan Gesture"; asserts that the scenes "are intended for connoisseurs who enjoy decoding visual signifiers"; suggests that the artist used the same model in his "Lazy Italian Maid" of 1655 (National Gallery, London).

Mark Ledbury. "Greuze in Limbo: Being 'Betwixt and Between'." French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Philip Conisbee. Washington, 2007, p. 187, ill. p. 178 and fig. 14 (color, overall and detail), discusses it among Greuze's seduced women, remarking that playful references to the penitent Magdalen "point to a scenario of remorse, not passage".

Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 420, no. 284, ill. pp. 303, 420 (color).

Old Masters. Christie's, New York. April 27, 2017, unpaginated, under no. 37.

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