Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805)

Greuze, the son of a roofer, was born in Tournus, a small town in Burgundy. His upbringing was modest. He first studied painting in Lyon and later in Paris, where in 1755, after further training with Charles Joseph Natoire, he applied for preliminary membership in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. When he gained admission, he became eligible to show at the Salon and presented a range of exhibits: a head study, a portrait, and three genre scenes. He was then invited to visit Italy (1982.93.2)—a training ground for ambitious French artists in the eighteenth century—and traveled as the companion of his patron, the Abbé Louis Gougenot, to Rome, where for a year, without charge, he lived and had the use of a studio at the Académie de France. In the spring of 1757, he returned to Paris, anxious to show the work he had done abroad. Greuze exhibited to critical acclaim at the Salons of 1757, 1759, 1761, 1763 (66.28.1), and 1765, but his further submissions were barred when he failed to offer the compulsory reception piece to the Académie Royale. He was perhaps a difficult man as well as a proud one. A natural storyteller, he was interested in modern moral subjects but wished to be admitted as an academician in the most important category, history painting (which embraced mythological and religious as well as historical subjects). In 1769, he offered Septimius Severus and Caracalla (Musée du Louvre, Paris), in which the Roman emperor Severus reproaches his son for seeking to murder him and take his place. While the artist was mindful of classicizing norms, his passionless treatment of an obscure theme won him no praise, and he was received, but in the lowest category, that of genre painter. The professional rebuke and an unsuccessful marriage blighted the existence of this gifted, highly original painter and draftsman (61.1.1). Working privately, Greuze nevertheless managed to build an admiring audience for his expressive studies of emotion (49.131.1) and of the complexities of modern life (2012.16).

The brief Salon career of Greuze reopened in 1757 with Broken Eggs (20.155.8) and its companion piece, The Neapolitan Gesture (Worcester Art Museum; 53.600.190). Much had been said in praise of Broken Eggs before the artist’s return to France, and the picture achieved singular success. Greuze presented the human encounters with which he mainly concerned himself in domestic interiors such as the one depicted here: a bare timbered room, rather dark, but with focused light, and the minimum of serviceable furnishings. Into the space he introduced sometimes one but more often three or more people wearing the clean, tidy equivalent of peasant costume. The participants vary in age and engage in different, highly charged, and often confrontational behaviors, while from time to time one of them offers a commentary on the activities of the others. In Broken Eggs, the behavior of the blond boy in the lower right corner elucidates the event. His elliptical expression (for what can so young a child know?) encourages the viewer to think darkly about the connection between the pretty girl, the remonstrating crone, and the dominant young male. With a napkin, the boy clutches the shell of a broken egg, the contents of which trickle in a liquid stream to the ground. The malefactions of the man with respect to the woman are thus suggested, because presumably she has lost her virginity, although it is not clear that she is unhappy about it. The artist’s tales and the way he relates them were derived in part from earlier Dutch genre scenes, which were admired and collected in Paris at the time. They may also have reflected aspects of his life, though the subject here is universal. In the 1750s, the audience for Salon exhibitions was increasingly numerous, diverse, and admiring of narratives of this kind.

The traditional, academic aspect of the artist’s output is represented in the Museum’s collection by a fine red chalk drawing, Reclining River God (61.1.2), and by one of the few pictures on a heroic scale that he ever painted, the unfinished Aegina Visited by Jupiter (1970.295). Greuze had learned early, in accordance with established practice, to draw (with tremendous skill) from the nude male model, because well-formed figures in motion were a required component of history painting. It has been argued that he created Aegina while searching for a subject for his submission to the Académie and then abandoned it for reasons we do not know. There is uncertainty about the subject, too, because the canvas was not exhibited during the artist’s lifetime and therefore he did not title it (did he intend to show Jupiter and Danaë?). There is, however, no doubt that the painting was important to him, as the nude was prepared in closely observed studies for the pose drawn from the female model. Had the canvas been finished, it might have achieved greater success than the rather anodyne Septimius Severus.

In portraiture, which Greuze would have been obliged to pursue for financial reasons, his achievements are underestimated. Not only was he skilled at the polish and detail that important clients such as the comte d’Angiviller required (66.28.1), he was aware of the demands of fashion (65.242.3), and he was cognizant of character and could be a convincing naturalist, drawing attention to the spark of an individual personality (55.205.2). Greuze was an advocate for, and an exceptional exponent of, a particular genre that is an offshoot of portraiture, the so-called expressive head. These studies, painted (32.100.137; 71.91) and drawn, looked back to work by the Académie’s founder, Charles Le Brun, but at the same time reflected the curiosity about emotional and intellectual development in children that was current in Greuze’s time and, more generally, expressed an inclination toward the open expression of sentiment (not sentimentality) that was so prevalent. Admired in the nineteenth century and disparaged or overlooked in the twentieth, many of the studies of emotional states are exceptional works of art.