All of us are familiar with the phrase, "overnight success." It is applied most often in the entertainment industry or in the business world, and just as often it is totally inaccurate. Moreover, the so-called "overnight success" often takes several years of hard work and study to happen; even though the fame that marks it may occur quite suddenly. It happens in art too. During the early years of the past century, an ambitious young artist by the name of Norman Rockwell, walked into the Saturday Evening Post offices in Philadelphia with three paintings, one of which he hoped might be suitable for a magazine cover. The Post bought all three and Rockwell walked out with $225 and a career that was to span seven decades--an overnight success if there ever was one. About a 150 years earlier, another artist, not unlike Rockwell in many ways, enjoyed a similar early success. Though much more self-taught than Rockwell and without his charm and wit, in 1755, Jean-Baptiste Greuze went to Paris armed with a single painting entitled Pere de famile expliquant la Bible a ses enfants (A Father Explaining the Bible to his Children). Based solely on this one work, Greuze was immediately nominated as an associate member of the French Academy.
Greuze was born in 1725 in Toumus, France, his father a master tiler who had in mind for the boy to become an architect. His training in art was spotty at best. He studied under an art dealer. A second painting, the same year, L'aveugle trompe (The Blind Man Cheated) was greeted with similar enthusiasm. Both paintings sold to wealthy collectors. At the age of thirty, he was an "overnight success." During the next forty years at least, he continued to enjoy this success. In many ways, his work was not unlike that of his twentieth century counterpart. It was bourgeois genre painting with a deep moralising streak which initially at least, ran counter to the prevalent Rococo style of artists such as Boucher and Fragonard. His work was seen as uplifting and enlightening, while theirs was viewed as decadent and frivolous. His 1765 painting, The Spoiled Child, is typical of his mature work.
One of the difficulties artists face is that, with any luck, their productive years may span well over half a century. And while this may at first seem like good fortune, the problem is, that changes in the social and political climate happen much more rapidly than this. Today, artists and writers have, to some degree, adjusted to this rapid turnover in ideas, styles, and social manners. Rockwell did. But during the eighteenth century, while the pace of change may have been slower, it was just as determined. And unfortunately, Greuze was unable to, or chose not to accommodate its inexorable movement. In due time, his work began to be perceived for what it was, sentimental, somewhat morally ambivalent, preachy, and intellectually dead. The age of archaeology, the age of reason, and with them, the rebirth of Classicism, all culminating in the French Revolution; did him in. He died in 1805, a broken man; once the wealthiest and most popular artists in all of France, in the end totally supported by one of his daughters; demonstrating that with overnight success there can also be overnight oblivion.