- Jean-Baptiste Greuze
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Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Jean-Baptiste Greuze was born at Tournus on 21 August, 1725. He was the sixth child (of nine) of a master-tiler. Little is known about his childhood, but he did study for a short time at Lyons under Grandon, an indifferent painter of portraits. Greuze then went to Paris, and applied to the Academy. He was accepted at the Academy in June of 1755, and the painter Silvestre and the sculptor Pigalle encouraged his early efforts.

His work soon caught the attention of La Live de Jully, an influential collector who began to take an interest in him. In 1755 his Lecture de la Bible; exhibited privately by La Live, was a great success. The public, intrigued by the touching sentiment and the novelty of the subject matter, was also enthusiastic when the picture was exhibited at the Salon later that same year. Pigalle introduced Greuze to Abbé Gougenot, a rich amateur, who took the young artist under his wing. Thanks to Gougenot's patronage, Greuze was able to make a trip to Italy. After the journey, Greuze painted Italian genre scenes, portraits and head-studies of women. These often-excellent portraits show that he was quite capable of comprehending and conveying reality, but he wished to make some more striking contribution to art. Greuze wished to raise art above the everyday, no more art for art's sake, but art harnessed to moral and educational purposes. At the 1761 Salon his Village Betrothal was brilliantly successful - Diderot praised it to the skies and for the next ten years enthusiastically championed his protégé. At this point, Greuze become the high priest of the religion of the heart, and followed up with a long series of homiletic pictures which delighted a sentimental-minded public.

The importance of Greuze is historical rather than artistic. He wished to express the spirit of his age, an age that longed to be touched. His interests were literary, and he attempted to paint a novel in each of his works. Truth was not enough, he arranged and re-arranged nature, striving to pose as virtuous, but hoping to titillate as well. It is this chord of falseness and his over-stated appeals to sentimentality, which strike modern viewers, and leave us disdainful of his lack of confidence in art unsupported by narrative. That his impetus is public instead of private is painfully obvious in his pandering to the 19th century sensibility. Where he hoped to elevate art and affect society, he instead created parodies that do not move the modern viewer in any meaningful way. Although he did indeed succeed in expressing something of the spirit of his age, in speaking the new language of the heart, he sacrificed his art to his ambition.

In 1769 he made a bid for admission to the Academy as an 'historical painter' with his Septimus Severus reproaching his son Caracalla for an attempt on his life; but the work was very badly received by the Academicians. Greuze was apprised, much to his disgust, that he was admitted only as a 'genre painter', which was then considered a much inferior category. As he was inordinately vain, this setback left him an embittered man. To add to his troubles, the unseemly behaviour of his pretty wife, Anne-Gabrielle Babuty, embarrassed him and eventually led to their estrangement. Withdrawing from the Salon exhibitions, he showed his work henceforth in his own studio, and the public flocked to see them.

Thanks to the sale of his pictures and the prints engraved from them, he had amassed a considerable fortune; but the Revolution ruined him. Ferociously independent, rancorous, proud, and quick to take offence, the humourless, puritanical artist ended his days in extreme poverty, his one consolation being his daughter's devoted companionship. He died in 1805.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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