Art November 2002
On the sexual politics of Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
If you were to choose among François Boucher (1703–70), Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), Greuze is certainly the big eighteenth-century French painter who got away. He is perhaps best known for Broken Eggs (1756, Metropolitan Museum), which, like so much of French art from the eighteenth century, is about sex, but which communicates none of the consequence-free kewpie fantasies of his contemporaries. A young woman sits by a spilled basket of her cracked and over-easy innocence; her parents guffaw and point; a little boy stands beside a half-barrel table attempting (of course in vain) to reassemble one of these metaphor-scrambled eggs. At first the theatrical message seems clear: young ladies, stay virtuous! A quick look through my 1966 edition of H. W. Janson’s History of Art communicates a similar impression: “Greuze has neither wit nor satire. His pictorial sermon illustrates the social gospel of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: that the poor, in contrast to the immoral aristocracy, are full of ‘natural’ virtue and honest sentiment.”
I do not care to cast aspersions on the great Janson. But for me, a close-up investigation into Greuze—and Greuze demands further investigation, the details are so abundant—always throws these sermons into shades of moral doubt. In Broken Eggs, what do we make of the tiny bow and arrow resting on the barrel beside the boy (James Thompson has suggested he is a plainclothes Cupid)? If this is only a scene about virginal guilt, why have most of the eggs remained intact, including one now rolling over to the boy’s right foot? In the interaction between the parents, what is the father saying? Is it possible that he is trying to calm the mother, not chastise the daughter? And what about the expression on the young woman’s face? Yes, this is a meditation on erotic abandon. But the daughter alternates between contemplation and shame, her emotions broad-ranging, her expressions entirely unclear and far from didactic.
Such ambiguities are hallmarks of Greuze, and in our confusion we are not alone.
Such ambiguities are hallmarks of Greuze, and in our confusion we are not alone. In the Paris Sketch Book, Thackeray perhaps put it best, writing that Greuze’s paintings “have charms for French critics which are difficult to be discovered by English eyes.”
There are many benefits to the exhibition Greuze the Draftsman,1 which I saw at the Frick earlier this year. (The exhibition is currently on view in Los Angeles.) One benefit was proximity to the Frick’s permanent collection and its masterworks from eighteenth-century France. There is Boucher’s nubile Madame Boucher (1743), who at twenty-seven is going on sixteen (this painting bears the nickname “Boucher’s Untidy Venus,” quite appropriately); there is the fantastic Progress of Love panels (1771–73) in the Fragonard room, with their putti and assignations; there is Chardin’s Lady With Bird Organ (1753), in the crystal-clear style of seventeenth-century Dutch painting, a sumptuous distraction. Dismissing all of them, the curator Edgar Munhall writes: “In comparison with [Greuze’s] achievement, Boucher appears monotonous; Fragonard, sublime but lacking a tragic, visceral quality; Chardin, practically nonexistent save for the pastels.”
The subterranean special-exhibition rooms of the Frick, accessed only by a single-file spiral staircase tucked in a corridor off the ticket room, have been kept like much else at the museum—that is, “user-unfriendly.” But these tight, taupe-colored spaces have also proven to be excellent venues for drawings (there is currently installed an exhibition of academic drawings from the École des Beaux-Arts, for example).
Edgar Munhall brought together the first ever Greuze retrospective at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, in 1976, and is largely responsible for renewed public interest in Greuze. He has not limited Greuze the Draftsman to the sketch studies of the artist’s final paintings (Greuze obsessed over his studies), but also included the gray ink wash and black chalk after-models Greuze composed as studies for his engravers. This makes for a dynamic exhibition strategy, but it also prompts at least one caveat: it helps to come prepared with some knowledge of Greuze’s painting, not just for the recognition of character studies in the larger scenes, for example with the portrait Boy with a Broken Egg, Study for “The Broken Eggs” (1756), but also to stay aware of the rich palettes Greuze was able in the end to employ.
One of the first drawings you encountered at the Frick came from the very end of Greuze’s drafting process. The engraving by J. Massard of The Beloved Mother (1775) was worked up from a brush and gray ink wash over black chalk drawing by Greuze, which was installed on an opposite wall. A string of preparatory drawings and drafts for the image were on view further in the show. Only when you come across these studied preparations does Greuze the draftsman, the meticulous student of human expression and emotion, become differentiated from Greuze the effortless stage manager and Greuze the dramatist.
The nuances and uncertainties of facial expression are not at the forefront of Beloved Mother (final version). Instead we first see the big movements: the embracing arms of the children around their mother, the spread hands and forward steps of the father rushing in from his hunt. But character expressions gradually erode this idyllic image of domestic bliss. It’s not a complete turn of image, but rather an erosion of idealism into a vision of the real world—a staged scene with real players. And Greuze has studied every aspect of the composition: from the snouts of the hunting spaniels to the open right hand of the seated grandmother.
If the face communicates the language of emotion, Greuze is our Champollion. He deciphers the heart’s imponderables even within the quiver of a lip. The husband’s smile in Beloved Mother has a downturned corner (six children clawing at his wife, quite a shock). But the face of the beloved mother herself most attracts us. Down the corridor in the left exhibition room of the Frick, Munhall positioned what was certainly the gem of the show: a pastel in red, black, and white chalks on light brown paper of a head-study for beloved mother. Here is Greuze in all his clever uncertainties: the pastel tones of the flesh alternate between red and pink to a shiny gray, the hooded eyes and cringe of the mouth place the figure in the contrapposto throes of agony and ecstasy. Upon seeing this in 1765, Diderot composed one of his most famous passages:
Here, my friend, is evidence of how much ambiguity there may be in the best picture. You see this lovely fish wife, rather plump, who has her head thrown back, her coloring pale, her elaborate bonnet in disarray, with her expression a mixture of pain and pleasure, revealing a moment of ecstasy sweeter to experience than suitable to paint? Now then, this is the sketch, the study of the beloved mother. How is it that here a figure is decent and there it ceases to be? This half-open mouth, these watery eyes, this thrown-back pose, this swollen throat, this voluptuous mixture of pleasure and pain causes eyes to be averted and all decent women to blush. Besides, if women quickly pass by this work, men stop in front of it for a long time; that is, those men who are connoisseurs and those who, pretending to be connoisseurs, come to enjoy a spectacle of powerful voluptuousness, and those who, like myself, combine both motivations. There are, on her forehead, and between the forehead and the cheeks, and from the cheeks to the bosom, incredible total passages; this teaches you to see nature and reminds you that there is such a thing. You must see the details of that swollen throat, which words cannot describe. This is absolutely beautiful, true to life, and scientifically observed.
I cannot improve on that. But let me add that the experience of investigation and discovery that Diderot limns is one that Greuze the Draftsman offers again and again in the studies Munhall has assembled.
It is also worth noting that if paintings like A Marriage Contract were intended as moral lessons, they were lessons Greuze left unheeded.
It is also worth noting that if paintings like A Marriage Contract were intended as moral lessons, they were lessons Greuze left unheeded. His 1759 marriage to Anne-Gabrielle Babuti “would soon disintegrate into a private nightmare and a public scandal,” records Munhall in his very lively catalogue, “due largely to Madame Greuze’s fiery character, her loose life, and meddling with her husband’s affairs.” Estrangement, court proceedings, alimony, and a recently legalized practice called divorce stretched over Greuze’s private life from 1785 to 1793. “He’s an excellent artist, but a very disagreeable character,” wrote Greuze’s close friend Diderot in a letter to the sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet in 1767. “One should have his drawings and his paintings,” Diderot continued, “and leave the man at that. Furthermore, his wife is, by unanimous consent (and when I say unanimous, I leave out neither hers nor that of her husband), one of the most dangerous creatures on earth. I should not give up hope that one fine day, her Imperial Majesty might not send her on tour to Siberia.”
Diderot was hardly alone in this harsh judgment: “I renounce, not the works of Greuze, but indeed the man himself,” wrote Catherine II of Russia. Early fame and an undiminished ego led to an invitation to join the French Royal Academy, as a genre painter, in 1755. When the Academy finally demanded that Greuze present his reception picture twelve years later (or risk expulsion from the Salons), Greuze decided to present a history painting as his entry (a style more prestigious than genre painting, so why not?). And of course the genre scenes that Greuze had so carefully composed throughout his career were nothing less than the history paintings of domestic life; they were “a complete treatise on domestic morality” wrote the abbé Philippe Bridard de la Garde.
The judges of the Academy conferred over Septimius Severus and Caracalla (1769) and admitted Greuze—but as a genre painter only! This was the ultimate insult (although deserved—Severus and Caracalla is pretty bad). Greuze did not exhibit in the Salon again for decades, yet he enjoyed an international reputation in many ways through sales of his drafts, which were often intended to serve as stand-alone works in addition to studies for larger pieces.
The popularity of Greuze waned in the revolutionary years of David and neoclassicism (politics held more interest than family life), and Greuze died in the Louvre in 1805 under the care of Dr. Guillotin, who was there not as his executioner, but as his caretaker. Interest in Greuze picked up later in the nineteenth century, to the point that Sherlock Holmes in The Valley of Fear was able to spot the criminal Professor Moriarty through an expensive Greuze (how could he afford it?): “in the year 1865 a picture by Greuze entitled La Jeune Fille à l’Agneau fetched one million two hundred thousand francs—more than forty thousand pounds—at the Portalis sale.”
In the last century, however, Greuze’s stock has slumped. The historian Walter Friedlander, echoing a common sentiment in his David to Delacroix, wrote that:
Everything is haunted by an effete and washed-out rococo which, in ridding itself of overt eroticism, has produced a more painful volupté décente, a kind of lascivious chastity. Chastity and the related virtues were portrayed with half-nude bosoms and draperies clinging to the body in the manner of the antique. Greuze’s innocently voluptuous young maidens are typical examples of this sort of erotic prudery.
A tough assessment, but one with which Greuze the Draftsman leads you to disagree. Perhaps no one disagrees more than Edgar Munhall, who has singularly attached himself in admiration and dedication to this elusive artist. On two occasions when I visited the Frick show, Munhall whirled through the exhibition leading groups of friends. I could not be happier than to slide quietly behind his footsteps. Greuze the Draftsman is that special achievement you find so rarely, and Munhall that curator rarer still.
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- “Greuze the Draftsman” opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, on September 10 and remains on view until December 1, 2002. It has been joined by an ancillary show entitled Greuze the Painter: Los Angeles Works In Context. The exhibition was previously seen at The Frick Collection, New York, from May 14–August 4, 2002. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by Merrell Publishers Limited in association with The Frick Collection (284 pages, $75). Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 3, on page 49
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