Jean-Baptiste Greuze  

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Fidelity (c. 1787-89) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
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Fidelity (c. 1787-89) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (21 August 1725 – 4 March 1805) was a French painter known for such works as The Broken Pitcher. Often considered kitsch by today's standards, his paintings of domestic scenes reveal the importance of Sentimentalism in the European arts of the period (as also seen in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Samuel Richardson). Venus appears from time to time in his work, as in The White Hat[1], his Fidelity[2], Psyche and in his Roman Charity[3].

Relations with the Academy

In 1759, 1761 ("L'accordée de village", Louvre), and 1763 Greuze exhibited with ever-increasing success; in 1765 he reached the zenith of his powers and reputation. In that year he was represented with no less than thirteen works, amongst which may be cited "La Jeune Fille qui pleure son oiseau mort", "La Bonne Mère", "Le Mauvais fils puni" (Louvre) and "La Malediction paternelle" (Louvre). The Academy took occasion to press Greuze for his diploma picture, the execution of which had been long delayed, and forbade him to exhibit on their walls until he had complied with their regulations. "J'ai vu la lettre," says Diderot, "qui est un modèle d'honnêteté et d'estime; j'ai vu la réponse de Greuze, qui est un modèle de vanité et d'impertinence: il fallait appuyer cela d'un chef-d'œuvre, et c'est ce que Greuze n'a pas fait." (I have read the letter, which is a model of honesty and reverence; I have seen Greuze's response, which is a model of vanity and impertinence: he should have backed it up with a masterpiece, and that's precisely what he didn't do.)

Greuze wished to be received as a historical painter, and produced a work which he intended to vindicate his right to despise his qualifications as a peintre de genre. This unfortunate canvas "Sévère et Caracalla" (Louvre) was exhibited in 1769 side by side with Greuze's portrait of "Jeaurat" (Louvre) and his admirable "Petite Fille au chien noir". The Academicians received their new member with all due honours, but at the close of the ceremonies the Director addressed Greuze in these words "Monsieur, l'Académie vous a reçu, mais c'est comme peintre de genre; elle a eu égard à vos anciennes productions, qui sont excellentes, et elle a fermé les yeux sur celle-ci, qui n'est digne ni d'elle ni de vous." (Sir, the Academy has accepted you, but only as peintre de genre; the Academy has respect for your former productions, which are excellent, but she has shut her eyes to this one, which is unworthy, both of her and of you yourself.) Greuze, greatly incensed, quarrelled with his confreres, and ceased to exhibit until, in 1804, the Revolution had thrown open the doors of the Academy to all the world.

In the following year, on 4 March 1805, he died in the Louvre in great poverty. He had been in receipt of considerable wealth, which he had dissipated by extravagance and bad management (as well as embezzlement by his wife), so that during his closing years he was forced even to solicit commissions which his enfeebled powers no longer enabled him to carry out with success. The brilliant reputation which Greuze acquired seems to have been due, not to his accomplishments as a painter for his practice, but is evidently that current in his own debut to the character of the subjects which he treated. That return to nature which inspired Rousseau's attacks upon an artificial civilization demanded expression in art.

Legacy

Diderot, in Le Fils naturel and Père de famille, tried to turn the vein of domestic drama to account on the stage; that which he tried and failed to do, Greuze, in painting, achieved with extraordinary success, although his works, like the plays of Diderot, were affected by that very artificiality against which they protested. The touch of melodramatic exaggeration, however, which runs through them finds an apology in the firm and brilliant play of line, in the freshness and vigour of the flesh tints, in the enticing softness of expression, by the alluring air of health and youth, by the sensuous attractions, in short, with which Greuze invests his lessons of bourgeois morality. As Diderot said of "La Bonne mère," il a prêché à la population; and a certain piquancy of contrast is the result which never fails to obtain admirers.

"La Jeune Fille à l'agneau" fetched, indeed, at the Pourtal's sale in 1865, no less than 1,000,000 francs. One of Greuze's pupils, Madame Le Doux, imitated with success the manner of her master; his daughter and granddaughter, Madame de Valory, also inherited some traditions of his talent. Madame de Valory published in 1813 a comédie-vaudeville, Greuze, ou l'accorde de village, to which she prefixed a notice of her grandfather's life and works, and the Salons of Diderot also contain, besides many other particulars, the story at full length of Greuze's quarrel with the Academy. Four of the most distinguished engravers of that date, Massard père, Flipart, Gaillard and Levasseur, were specially entrusted by Greuze with the reproduction of his subjects, but there are also excellent prints by other engravers, notably by Cars and Le Bas.

References in literature

In the second chapter of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story The Valley of Fear, Holmes' discussion of his enemy Professor Moriarty involves a Greuze painting, intended to illustrate Moriarty's wealth despite his small income.

In the sixth part of The Leopard, a novel by the Italian writer Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Prince of Salina watches a Greuze painting, La Mort du Juste, and he starts thinking about death when his nephew Tancredi comes and asks "Are you courting death ?"

In Agatha Christie's "The Murder at the Vicarage," Miss Marple mentions her nephew considers another character "the perfect Greuze."




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