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

July 30, 2010

Innovation: Greuze

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Self-Portrait. c. 1769, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

The talented painter was born in 1725 in Tournus, his family was not rich, but lower middle class. He began to draw when he was very young, and would leave his drawings all over the place! But the idea of earning a living as an artist was not well received by his father (naturally).  It seemed entirely out of the question.  As a nice compromise, as his son clearly had a bit of artistic talent, the boy was set up to be an apprentice to an architect. You can guess how this worked out.

One day he gave his father a gift, a portrait of St. James' head.  (To be fair it was given on St. James' Day).  The portrait showed the command of young Greuze's talent, full of life and dimension.  It was a lucky day for the young artist, his father knew then his son had the gift of 'genius'/ true artistic talent!

Jean Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Woman ("Contemplation"). Mid-1770s, Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He was set up with an apprenticeship at the workshop of the artist Grandon in Lyons, where he jumped into his training program.  He took full advantage.  All the drawings created at this workshop were sent out and sold, and there was less emphasis on fine art and more of a push for marketable art.  Quick sales, mass sales.  As soon as his time there ended he headed off to Paris.  This could easily have gone either a modern New York, you could loose everything or gain everything.  He was quite determined to climb the ladder of success.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Dead Bird, or A Child Hesitating to Touch a Bird, Fearing That It Might Be Dead. c. 1800,  oil on wood.  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

While in Paris he practiced great industry, attended the academy everyday, took lessons from Charles Joesph Natoire, and in his spare time created works to be sold so that he could afford to live. He did not make much money but was doing what he loved, and he believed he was growing as an artist.  One day, as the story goes, Natoire gave him a critique of his work, which he did not want to hear.  Sharply, Greuze responded something along the lines of oh you only wish you could paint figures like this!  *shock *gasp

As you can imagine, Natoire was not a big fan after that.  In fact, he was not well received anywhere! In 1755, at the age of 30, he finally caught the attention of the academy.  Works such as Aveugle trompé and Le Père de famille expliquant la Bible à ses enfants. Why did these works catch the eyes of the art community?

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder. Probably 1759, oil on canvas (lined). The Frick Collection.

Greuze was painting in a style uniquely his own at the time.  He took a little from Boucher, a little from Watteau, and added a bit of Rousseau and Voltaire in the mix.  Rather than creating light-hearted scenes of pleasure and frivolity, his images focused on human spirit.  Even in a very subtle way, his figures conveyed thought, feeling, and emotion.

His subjects, the class portrayed, were not often found in fine art at the time.  This very fact made his works genuine and unique.  They were milkmaids, laundresses, working class people.  They were decorated, stripped down, and thoughtful.  His figures suffered, felt sorrow, felt joy, and laughed.  They were well received by aristocrats who had begun the desire for a new style.  A more simple style, back-to-basics way of life. In this way Greuze was not only innovated but a trend-maker.


  1. Just gorgeous. I can see why his works were so fresh at the time - they still are! The emotion and love he puts into his work can still be felt today - you can feel how much he enjoyed doing what he did, just by looking at his works. Amazing. What I wouldn't give for a little bit of his talent :)

  2. This was a thoroughly fascinating blog post. Thank you for enlightening the masses about this talented artist. I finished reading the recent biography on Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun and posted a piece about it on my own blog. Have you read that book yet? It was a good, easy read, though I wish the author would have dug a little deeper.