Greuze, although affected by both movements, was neither conventionally rococo nor neoclassical. He is primarily remembered for his soulful and erotic depictions of young women and larger, theatrical set-pieces painted with a clear moralizing agenda.
Born the son of a roofer in the provincial town of Tournus, Greuze travelled to Paris in 1750 to pursue a career as an artist. There, he studied drawing at the Académie Royale with Charles-Joseph Natoire (1700–70). In 1755 he was agréé by the Académie as a painter of genre pieces and he exhibited his first works at the Salon that year. They were noted for their Dutch character and closeness to Chardin (1699–1779). His talent was immediately recognized by the great collector La Live de Jully who bought three of his paintings.
Later in 1755, Greuze travelled to Italy where he would have met both Fragonard (1732–1806) and Hubert Robert (1733–1808). During his visit, Greuze drew, not copies of the antique, but people and scenes from everyday life, usually featuring attractive, demure young girls and handsome men. These were then incorporated into a series of four major paintings, which, ever the canny self-promoter, Greuze rushed back to Paris to exhibit in the 1757 Salon. Conceived as pairs, paintings like Indolence (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) and The Fowler (Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw) with their virtuoso drawing, startling compositions and creamy handling of paint announced Greuze to the world as a major new force on the French art scene. For the next ten years he maintained this level of invention and quality with small paintings of faux-innocent girls such as Girl Weeping over a Dead Bird (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh), to portraits, best of which is that of his patron La Live de Jully and also large multifigural compositions of lowly families gathered to celebrate morally uplifting events such as The Marriage Contract (musée du Louvre, Paris) and Filial Piety (State Hermitage, St Petersburg). These works were highly praised by the influential critic and philosophe, Dennis Diderot, though proved hard to sell.
In 1769 Greuze decided to formalize his position in the cultural hierarchy by presenting as his morceau de recéption at the Académie a history painting, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla (musée du Louvre, Paris). It was accepted, but to Greuze’s lasting fury he was only received as a ‘genre painter’. To add to his humiliation the drier, unexpected classicizing tone of the painting provoked an avalanche of negative reviews from the critics. He did not exhibit at the salon again for thirty-one years. After this disgrace, Greuze painted numerous half-length paintings of ecstatic or doleful girls of varying degrees of quality. His work becomes more mannered and exaggerated. In some cases, such as the two large masterpieces of 1778 The Father’s Curse and The Punished Son (musée du Louvre, Paris) he achieves a clarity and expressionistic intensity of unusual power and beauty. In these works, we see Greuze looking at Poussin and his subject pictures increasingly conform to neo-classical conventions. During the Revolution, Greuze continued to work and painted a series of penetrating portraits in smoothly applied paint, often on panel. His most celebrated sitter was the young Napoleon Bonaparte who he painted in 1792.
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Books on Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Emma Barker, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment, New York, 2005.
Colin Bailey, Patriotic Taste: collecting modern art in pre-revolutionary Paris, New Haven, 2002.
Colin Bailey, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, Los Angeles, 2000.
Edgar Munhall, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725-1805, exh. cat., Hartford, 1976.
Anita Brookner, Greuze: The rise and fall of an eighteenth-century phenomenon, London, 1972.
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French Eighteenth-Century Painters: Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, La Tour, Greuze, Fragonard, 1880-2, trans. Robin Ironside, Ithaca, 1981.