Greuze, Jean-Baptiste

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Greuze, Jean-Baptiste (1725-1805): French, Painter.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze was one of the most popular painters of the eighteenth century, appealing to both critics and the public. His subject range was broad, including history paintings, portraits and genre scenes; the latter were defined as "moral paintings" by Diderot, Denis, who had a strong admiration for Greuze's art. He did not fit precisely within either the contemporary Rococo or Neo-Classical styles but defined an art that addressed concerns about the moral decay of society.

Greuze was born in Tournus, France, into a working class family. As a child of eight, he showed such artistic skill in draftsmanship, he was sent to study with a portrait painter. By 1755, Greuze was named an associate member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the government sponsored institution for the instruction of artists and perpetuation of the officially sanctioned style. His skill at rendering the human figure afforded him the opportunity to work within the category of history painting, most highly respected in academic circles.

A perceived contract dispute with the Royal Academy damaged his relationship with the official art world. After some attempts to be defined as a history painter, he was outraged to discover the Royal Academy, after reviewing his history subjects, classified him a genre painter--the inferior category of ordinary people in everyday life. While the years after this dispute were financially difficult, he found success exhibiting genre scenes. Denis Diderot wrote about Greuze's art in six critical essays between 1759 and 1767 and expressed his admiration for their didactic messages. Diderot, sharing the general opinion that the life-styles of the aristocracy contributed to the immorality of a society consumed by trivial hedonism, saw in his work moral truth and honest family values of monogamy and duty of parent to child. The painting, Marriage Contract, shown at the 1761 Royal Academy exhibition and depicting a father giving a dowry to his prospective son-in-law, fulfilled the expectations of his critics and the public by illustrating conservative family traditions and the submission of women to male authority. His greatest success was seen in the pair of paintings, Father's Curse and Punished Son, completed in 1778. As revolutionary fervor grew, this pair of paintings was seen as a symbol of a corrupt society. In Father's Curse, the eldest son is being tempted to leave home by a sophisticated and corrupt city-slicker. The father curses the son and the mother and siblings sob as the young man departs to a life of debauchery. In Punished Son, the boy returns home in despair, emaciated and ill, while his father lies on his death bed, adding guilt to the son's shame. The similarity to the story of the Prodigal Son and the reference to familial responsibility was not lost on his public.

His painting style was naturalistic with precise detail and his compositions, strong in narrative drama, resembled stage sets with figures in frozen poses, suggesting a tableau vivant. Greuze not only survived the French Revolution, he was committed to its cause. In 1793, he joined the General Commune of the Arts, which replaced the Royal Academy. He died in his studio in the Louvre Palace.

Further Reading:

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


Lynne Lokensgard

Lamar University

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