Greuze: History Painting | Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: Greuze: History Painting

February 25, 2010

Greuze: History Painting

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Severus and Caracalla. 1769, Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre.

Jean Baptiste Greuze, desiring admission to the Académie Royale, submitted a work of art to be considered for acceptance.  On August 23, 1769 the Académie received him, but not on the conditions he hoped for.  He was accepted, but as a "genre painter." The piece he submitted was a history painting of Emperor Severus accusing his son, Caracalla, for wanting to assassinate him.  History painting was a classic route to take but it just did not work out for Greuze.  The rejection left him humiliated for quite some time.

Caracalla was born in an area which today is Lyon, France.  His father was the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus.  Caracalla and his brother Geta did not get along well, and their father tried to soothe family tensions by having everyone under one roof, under his watchful eye. Good idea?  

Severus raised Caracalla's rank above his brother's, so that he would be next in line for Emperor.  When the three went on a campaign in Britain the emperor fell ill.  Caracalla picked up the slack for his father.  It is said that he would just as well have seen his father dead so that he could be emperor. ..makes sense so far!  Rumor has it that Caracalla actually tried to murder his father while on campaign.  If he were so bold to attempt it, he did it unsuccessfully.

Severus decided to raise Geta's rank as well, with a plan that the two could co-rule.  After his death both brothers disregarded his advice, and their rivalry continued.  Back at the Palace, they split things up in half, one half for Caracalla and one for Geta, even with separate entryways!  One day Caracalla summoned his brother to call a truce.  Caught off his guard, the unsuspecting brother was murdered and Caracella became emperor.

Greuze chose to depict a moment when the ill emperor calls out his son. Wrapped in cloth and mimicing Michelangelo's God (sistene chapel), the man is able to gather strength to sit up and physically and verbally direct his claim against Caracalla. Clearly the boy has not kept his feelings private. It is an intense moment between father and son, and Caracalla, who should be stunned turns around with a look more of annoyance than anything.


  1. How neat! I love the details in the stomach definition of the one son - very well done.

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