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Friday, July 17, 2020

A Masterful Manipulator of Theatricality: Greuze and French Genre Painting

In the 18th century—in the decades leading to the demise of the French monarchy, or Ancien Régime—Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s portraits and genre scenes were widely celebrated by his noble and wealthy patrons. He was born in 1725 to a master tiler who recognized his son’s artistic talent. Initially, Greuze was sent to Lyon to study portraiture. Later he went to Paris to attend the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture). Like many of his contemporaries, he received commissions to paint portraits. He also applied his mastery of expression to the most memorable use in his genre paintings, which employed carefully staged gestures and emotion to convey moralizing messages.

Fig. 1. Jean-Baptise Greuze (French, 1725–1805), Head of a Girl, 
18th century, red chalk on medium, slightly textured cream laid paper.
Museum Purchase, 1962.8.

Genre paintings show scenes of everyday life populated by anonymous figures, often peasants.
(Fig. 1). They were perceived as less artistically significant than “history paintings,” which portrayed subjects from the Bible or Greco-Roman mythology. Greuze attempted unsuccessfully to be accepted into the Académie royale as an officially recognized history painter in the late 1760s, despite the Académie’s concurrent enthusiasm for his genre paintings. This embittered the artist, who in turn ceased submitting his work for more than three decades to the Salon, the Académie’s annual exhibition of art in Paris.

This lack of official sanction did not, however, reduce Greuze’s popularity in a society that relished the sensibilité, or appeal to emotion, in his genre scenes, and attended private art viewings in his studio. His patrons ranged from influential Parisian collectors, like French financier and patron of the arts Ange Laurent de La Live de Jully, to Empress Catherine II of Russia.¹

Greuze painted La Geste Napolitain (The Neapolitan Gesture) while travelling in Italy with his patron Louis Gougenot, the abbé de Chezal-Benôit, who helped to promote the rising artist. The drama in this scene is conveyed through interwoven theatrical gestures, highly expressive glances, and romantic staging. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. Jean-Baptise Greuze (French, 1725–1805), La Geste Napolitain, 1757, oil on canvas.
Charlotte E.W. Buffington Fund, 1964.113.

In Naples, an outstretched hand with palms up (like the young woman’s right) traditionally means "Go away" or "We're closed" depending on context, while the fingers touching under her chin signify dismissal, as in “I don’t care.” While the exact meaning behind the narrative has been lost to time, the young woman’s gestures and the young man’s disguise as a peddler (only the viewer sees the medal of a nobleman, hidden from the women) suggest a moral about outward appearances. The elderly woman attempts to intervene, her gesture mirrored by the boy holding back a barking dog.

Greuze’s work became less popular as the political climate in France shifted dramatically at the end of the century. The French Revolution’s first decade of upheaval (1789-99) heralded a new style that swept the nation: neoclassicism. Lead by the younger Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825), the neoclassicists championed a more austere version of history painting, in which they upheld ancient Greek philosophers and heroes from the Roman Republic as examples for the new, secular, republican regime. (Fig. 3) These figures were depicted in stark colors and crisp lineation, in dramatic stances and togas that accentuated their height—both physical and moral.

Fig. 3. Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748–1825), 
Apollo with a Cithara, about 1784, black conté crayon
on white laid paper. Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 1993.57

Greuze’s lack of success in the field of history painting spelled trouble for his survival as an artist in the French Republic. Additionally, he continued to favor the sentimental gestures and sensiblité that his Ancien Régime patrons adored, but which was spurned by neoclassicsm. It didn’t help matters that Greuze was left nearly destitute after a divorce from his wife, who purportedly embezzled his previously considerable wealth. To make quick money, he began churning out têtes de jeunes filles, studies of young women’s heads in repetitive, saccharine attitudes of devotion or ecstasy. This overflow of melodrama left contemporary critics apathetic. He died in poverty in 1805. 

In intervening centuries, interest in Greuze has waxed and waned, often dependent on modern attitudes toward genre painting, and hampered by an art historical narrative more focused on neoclassicism’s ascendancy that the decline of sensibilité. Yet whatever the dominant trends of the day may be, Greuze’s skill as a painter can’t be denied. His genre scenes display a masterful manipulation of theatricality and attention to detail and offer the viewer a fascinating look back at the morals and tastes that defined much of the 18th century.

—By Olivia J. Kiers, Curatorial Assistant
    July 17, 2020


1 National Gallery of Art. “Jean-Baptise Greuze.” Accessed June 17, 2020. https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1358.html 

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