Greuze, JEAN-BAPTISTE, French painter, b. at Tournus in Ardeche, August 21, 1725; d. at Paris, March 21, 1805. His father, a master-tiler, wished to make him an architect, but ended by leaving him free to follow his own vocation, and sent him to Lyons to study under Gromdon, father-in-law of the musician Gretry. As Gromdon was only a contractor and a picture-dealer and agent, it is hard to see what he could have taught his pupil. Greuze, however, had already attained some skill when he came to Paris, in 1755, with his picture “Pere de famille expliquant la Bible a ses enfants” (A father explaining the Bible to his children). His name was at once proposed to the Academy by Sylvestre, and he was received as an associate. The picture, which was purchased by the celebrated amateur La Live de Jully, was exhibited along with a second painting, “L’aveugle trompe
(The blind man cheated), that same year. It was a triumph for Greuze. In one day he had become famous in Paris, though he was only thirty years of age.
Like all artists of his time, he thought it necessary to travel through Italy. He set out towards the end of 1755, with the Abbe Gougenot, the celebrated savant and archeologist. Rome and Florence, however, do not seem to have exerted any influence on his art. It is true, he brought back from Naples some scenes de mceurs for the exhibition of 1757, but they were Neapolitan only in costume and name. He soon returned to his true style, paintings of humble and bourgeois life, and from that moment there began for him a wonderful career of success and good fortune. A strange change was then taking place in the French mind—a curious variation, so to say, of the moral temperature. Reason, the critical faculty, and the intellect had run riot, and now men felt the need of living the life of the heart. Society, satiated with frivolity and licentiousness, sought repose in a simple, honest life. This it was that made Rousseau’s “Julie” and “Emile” so wonderfully popular; it was, in a word, the great moral and religious crisis of the century; it could not but exert an influence on art, and it fell to Greuze to express it in painting. In this, it is true, he was preceded by an artist much greater than he, J-B-Simeon Chardin, whose paintings the “Ecureuse” (1738), the “Pourvoyeuse”, the “Benedicite” (1740) are still masterpieces of the homely family life. Chardin, too, was an excellent draughtsman, and Greuze was much his inferior in this respect, just as he falls far short of his precursor’s tender kindliness and lovable, unpretentious poetry. For Chardin’s charming simplicity Greuze substitutes a host of moral aims and edifying thoughts. The interest of pure sympathy which a painter ought to feel in the model’s life was not enough for Greuze, he must mingle with it a strain of anecdote and a concealed lesson. His work is more or less a painted sermon; he is ever a preacher. In this respect he resembles Hogarth, whom he undoubtedly imitated as Rousseau imitated Richardson. The success of Greuze was therefore one of the innumerable forms of the eighteenth-century anglomania.
All this conspired to make him, for some years, the most widely known and most celebrated painter in Europe. His art was hailed as the triumph of natural bourgeois virtue over the mythological and immoral painting of Boucher. His work was a pleasing return to reality and life as it is. The “Tricoteuse”, “Devideuse”, and “Jeune fille pleurant son oiseau mort”, at the Exhibition of 1759, carried away the public with a new feeling of life, an emotion that unexpectedly arose from the most commonplace scenes. The “Accordee de village”, exhibited in 1761, raised popular enthusiasm to the highest pitch. The picture marked an epoch. It had the distinction, hitherto unheard of for a picture, that the scene it presented furnished the subject of a play at the “Comedie Italienne”; the climax of this play was the betrothal scene, which was reproduced by the actors exactly as it was painted by Greuze. This compliment, in the present writer’s opinion, contains a most delicate piece of criticism. For the artist’s main fault is that he betrays his effort to lecture the public. Nature never presents these ready-made scenes, where the lesson is plainly written; some artifice is requisite to draw it out. Greuze is no less conventional than Boucher, while he lacks his power of description and his brilliant imagination. Instead of the grand opera, which is saved by its lyricism, we are disappointed at finding only the comic opera. The naturel of Greuze is that of “Rose et Colas”, the “Deserteur” or the “Devin de village”. His paintings all resemble one of Sedaine’s little dramas suddenly stopped in the midst of a performance.
In addition, his notion of morality is always uncertain or equivocal or, rather, he confuses morality and pleasure, which always ruins his best work. The idea, that virtue is pleasure, that the virtuous man is the one who really enjoys himself, that beneficence is to be measured by the intensity of the emotion it causes in him who practices it, all these conceptions of a well-defined epicurism and a philanthropy identified with egotism, are the most commonplace and silly moral platitudes, for which the age of “philosophy” is responsible. This coarse sensualism and affected sentimentalism, with which the literature of the day was replete, infected Greuze. Despite the innocent appearance of his art, it is quite as reprehensible as. that of Boucher and his son-in-law Baudoin, whose charming elegance he does not possess. The eroticism of the eighteenth century had changed only in outward appearance. With all its bourgeois prudish airs, Greuze’s painting is. full of lascivious hints and equivocal suggestions. To be convinced of this, one has only to read Diderot’s commentaries on the “Cruche cassee” or the “Jeune fille qui pleure son oiseau mort”. But this did not impede the success of Greuze or diminish his renown. His paintings, engraved by Flipart, Massart, Gaillard, and Levasseur, continued to be most popular, and brought him a fortune. Meanwhile, although it was customary for artists admitted by the Academy as associates to present a picture to the Society within six months, ten years had passed, and Greuze had not fulfilled this obligation. Finally, in 1769, he offered his “Septime Severe reprochant a Caracalla d’avoir voulu l’assassiner” (Septimus Severus reproaching Caracalla). This painting, which may be seen in the Louvre, met with a very cold reception. Greuze, who expected it would gain him membership in the Academy as an historical painter, was received only as a painter of genre. Proud, like all self-taught men, and spoiled, moreover, by his triumphal career, the artist could not pardon the Academy for this humiliation, which he attributed to the envy of his fellow-painters. From that time he ceased to work for the exhibitions and contented himself with displaying his works in his studio, whither the public continued to go to see them, as they went to see Rousseau in his fifth-floor room in the rue Platriere. Among others, Mme Roland, then Mlle Phlipon, visited him twice in 1777.
As successful as ever, Greuze went on to produce some of his most renowned works, the “Benediction” and the “Malediction paternelle”, the “Mort du bon pore de famille” and the “Mort du Pere denature”.
He intended to paint a suite of twenty pictures, a moral romance, “Bazile et Thibaut” or “Deux educations”, showing the lives of good and bad. But this plan was not carried into execution. At length evil days were approaching for Greuze. His fame never recovered completely from the check it received at the Academy. Differences with his wife, which led to a painful separation, created for him a doubtful situation. The preacher of the joys of family life became, in the midst of his domestic troubles, an object of derision or of pity to the populace. Younger painters, like Fragonard, surpassed him in his own style; their sentiment and form were freer than his, and their execution much superior. Lastly, for some years, public taste had been changing. The wind blew in another direction. The ideas of Winckelmann were becoming diffused. The enthusiasm for antiquity, stirred up by excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, disgusted the public with the divinities of Boucher and the bourgeoisie of Greuze. Diderot, who had lauded the latter so highly, began to abandon him. “I no longer care for Greuze”, he wrote in 1769. Everything foreshadowed the movement that was to culminate in the artistic Jacobinism of David. From the “Mort de Socrate” (1784) of this painter, which is the manifesto of the new school, Greuze was intellectually dead. The Revolution was the finishing blow to his renown. His last works show him trying to fall in with the new ideas; they are a curious compromise between his style and that of Prudhon and the Directory. One of his last paintings was the portrait of the First Consul Bonaparte, now preserved at Versailles. Ruined by the mismanagement of his affairs and the treachery of his wife, abandoned by his clientele, deserted by the public, the old man would have fallen into the most abject poverty but for the help he received from one of his daughters. He used to say to Fragonard: “I am seventy-five years old, I have been working for fifty, I earned three hundred thousand francs, and now I have nothing.” He died at the age of eighty, in complete oblivion, having survived a world whose idol he was, and whose ideal he expressed most perfectly.
Overpraised in his lifetime, and always popular (on account of his theatrical display and his moralizing literary painting), this artist fully merited his reputation. Though his style was a false one, he was a brilliant master of it. He represents, perhaps, the bourgeois ideal of art and morality. Of the intellectual movement that produced the plays of Diderot, Sedaine, and Mercier, the comic opera of Gretry and Montigny, his work is all that survives today. And as a painter of expressive heads, especially of children and young girls, he has left a number of specimens that display the highest artistic gifts. His “Sophie Arnould” (London, Wallace Gallery) and his “Portrait d’inconnue” (Van Horne collection, Montreal, Canada) are among the most beautiful portraits of women produced by the French School.