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Greuze, Jean-Baptiste (1725–1805)


GREUZE, JEAN-BAPTISTE (17251805), French painter. Born in Tournus (Burgundy) to a prosperous middle-class family, Greuze studied art in Lyon in the late 1740s with the portrait painter Charles Grandon. In about 1750, he sat in on drawing classes at the Académie Royal in Paris, and in 1755 became an associate member of the academy as a genre painter after presenting A Father Reading the Bible to His Family, The Blindman Deceived, and The Sleeping Schoolboy. These moralizing narratives that deal with social and familial issues of contemporary life among the lower and middle classes (reminiscent in certain ways of William Hogarth) announced principal themes the artist would become most celebrated for throughout his career.

Aristocratic patrons in ancien régime France took great interest in genre subjects and encouraged French painters to revive this tradition. Thus, Greuze found ready patronage for his paintings. Like many fellow genre painters, Greuze was influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch predecessors whose genre images were accessible through prints as well as original works in private collections. He also studied Rubens and Rembrandt, both of whom had an indelible impact on his style. In addition, Greuze was influenced by the style of the esteemed rococo court painter François Boucher (17031770) and the celebrated genre painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (16991779), who was a peer as well as a rival.

Greuze traveled in Italy in 17551757 as a guest of Louis Gougenot, Abbé de Chezal-Benoît. He stayed at the French Academy in Rome in 17561757 thanks to the intercession of the Marquis de Marigny, superintendent of buildings for Louis XV. While in Rome Greuze seemed impervious to an emerging neoclassicism and continued to work on moralizing subjects in a style he had developed in France. Upon returning to France in 1757 he exhibited at the salon "Four Pictures in Italian Costume": Indolence, Broken Eggs, The Neapolitan Gesture, and The Fowler. All present moralizing narratives and commentary on contemporary mores with didactic implications. Indolence, for example, is an emblem or allegory of sloth; it inaugurated a series of admonitory works in which Greuze represented sensual young women as single figures with emblematic objects or surroundings such as in The Broken Mirror (1763), somewhat unusual in its depiction of a wealthier interior. Often the compositions communicate the erotic accessibility of servants, as in The Laundress (1761), or the loss of virginity in young adolescent girls, as in the variations on the theme of a young girl mourning her dead bird (1759, 1765) or The Broken Pitcher (1773). These paintings, often moralizing in theme, nonetheless emphasize an eroticism and sensuality that belong to the French rococo tradition. Greuze also specialized in depicting the beauty of children, as in Girl Playing with a Dog (1767), Young Shepherd Boy with a Basket of Flowers and its pendant, Simplicity (1761), Boy with Lessonbook (1757), and commissioned children's portraits such as the Comtesse Mollien with Puppies at Age Six (1791).

Broken Eggs, another in the 1757 series of "Italian Costume" paintings, signaled an important direction in Greuze's art, that of the moralizing narrative in which a larger social group of the rustic lower classes is involved. Greuze also depicted more complex narratives involving familial and social situations. One of his best-known works, The Marriage Contract (1761), depicts a bride reluctant to leave her family as her father hands over her dowry to her betrothed and a notary records the transaction. This painting was hailed by the great Enlightenment philosophe and art critic Denis Diderot (17131784), who often praised the artist. He saw this and similar paintings by Greuze as visual correspondents to his psychological family dramas known as the drame bourgeois.

Although Greuze sometimes represented familial devotion, as in The Paralytic Father (1763) and The Well-Loved Mother (1765), his most dramatic compositions depict unhappy families, as in his well-known pendants, The Father's Curse and The Punished Son (1778). In these works, gesture and body language communicate the tragic familial narrative. In the first painting, the aging father of a large family curses his son, who abandons the family to join the army in spite of the pleas of his mother and siblings. In the pendant, the wounded son returns to his father's deathbed. He is a broken man, his father has just died, and his grief-stricken family is impoverished.

Greuze was also well known for intimate scenes of young mothers of the lower class with their children, as in Silence! (1759), in which a beautiful young mother with bared breast (she is ostensibly breastfeeding her infant), admonishes her son to stop blowing his horn, which will awaken the sleeping siblings. Here, simplicity, poverty, and familial intimacy are combined with erotic elements that emphasize sensuality and fertility.

Although Greuze enjoyed great success as a genre painter, he aspired to history painting, the top of the hierarchy of genres in French academic art. In 1769 he submitted a historical subject as his reception piece for full admittance to the academy, Septimius Severus Reproaching His Son Caracalla for Having Wanted to Assassinate Him, a composition influenced by Poussin and painted in the neoclassical style. The academy ridiculed the painting and rejected Greuze as a history painter, admitting him instead only in the category of genre painting. Greuze was so embittered by this decision that he did not exhibit at the salon again until 1800. Late in his career he returned to history painting with such works as Psyche Crowning Cupid (1792) and his last major painting, the strange and enigmatic religious composition, St. Mary of Egpyt (1801).

Greuze also established a solid reputation as a portrait painter. One of his most insightful studies of character is the subtle portrait of the academy model Joseph (1755). Other expressive and lively portraits include those of his patron, Ange-Laurent La Live de Jully (1759), The Marquise de Bezons Tuning Her Guitar (1759), and Benjamin Franklin (c. 1777).

Greuze's impact on the development of French painting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped ensure the continued popularity and importance of genre painting as a means of conveying moral, psychological, and social narratives of everyday life, influencing such painters as Louis-Léopold Boilly (17611845). His immediate students and followers, Wille the Younger and Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié (17351784), enjoyed success, and Greuze also encouraged his female students, who included Constance Mayer and his daughter Anna Greuze.

See also Art: Artistic Patronage ; Diderot, Denis ; France, Art in .


Bailey, Colin. Jean-Baptiste Greuze: The Laundress. Los Angeles, 2000.

Brookner, Anita. Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon. Greenwich, Conn., 1972.

Ledbury, Mark. Sedaine, Greuze and the Boundaries of Genre. Oxford, 2000.

Munhall, Edgar. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 17251805. Hartford, Conn., 1976.

Sahut, Marie Catherine, and Nathalie Volle, eds. Diderot et l'art de Boucher à David. Paris, 1984.

Dorothy Johnson

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Greuze, Jean-Baptiste

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (zhäN bätēst´ gröz), 1725–1805, French genre and portrait painter. He studied at the Académie Royale and won recognition in 1755 with his Blind Man Deceived. He traveled in Italy and on his return painted a series of popular realistic pictures of a dramatic and moralizing character—The Village Bride,The Father's Curse,The Wicked Son Punished,The Broken Pitcher (all: Louvre). His artificial, often slightly prurient compositions are less interesting to modern taste than his portraits, which include one of his wife called The Milkmaid (Louvre) and those of the dauphin, Robespierre, and Napoleon (all: Versailles). A superb draftsman, he also created hundreds of fine drawings. In the Revolution Greuze lost both fortune and popularity, and died in poverty. Examples of his work are in such collections as the Louvre, London's Wallace Collection, the Edinburgh National Gallery, and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

See study by A. Brookner (1972).

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