Jean-Baptiste Greuze: 1725-1805 1976-January 23, 1977 (Also at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, March 5-May 1, 1977, and at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, June 4-July 31, 1977)
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who played Turner to Diderot’s Ruskin, was the most influential French painter in the crucial decades 1760-1780; yet the show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford is the world’s first special exhibit devoted to him. By the middle of the nineteenth century he had become the very type of the prurient preacher. The Goncourt brothers called him “the man fated to establish in France the lamentable school of literary painting and of moralizing art.” He created a kind of eighteenth-century soap opera of the Salons: Tune in next year to find out what happened to the man cursed by his father or the family that prayed together. The very popularity of Greuze swamped his later career in an after-wash of cheap imitators; to compete with them, he ended his life cranking out “têtes d’expression” of pretty girls in precocious orgasms of piety. They all seem mislabeled—“Psyche” instead of “Simper,” “Innocence” instead of “Complicity,” undying “Hope” instead of “Wet Dream.”
Yet the brilliance of Greuze’s technique could not be denied. In this century a rebirth of interest took place in his portraits—the burnished Rembrandt face above a panier of dead coals called Joseph the Academy Model (Number 5 in the Hartford exhibit); a bust-length painting of his engraver-friend, Johann Wille (Number 39), as a kind of heroically honest businessman, part Roman coin and part Good Provider out of Richardson; vivid likenesses of Napoleon (109), Franklin (82), and Diderot (50). His female portrait The White Hat, from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, sifts light and color through or over feathers, lips, eyes, breasts, silk in a way that makes Renoir’s Madame Henriot look like an amateur’s first approach to the way light uses clothes to color skin, skin to color clothes. By 1972, the art historian Anita Brookner based Greuze’s claim to modern regard on four portraits and one portrait sketch.
But recently a broader approach to Greuze has become possible. Edgar Munhall, the organizer of this exhibit, found a revolutionary impulse behind the Protestant and middle-class elements in Greuze’s storytelling. Like Brookner, he thinks his shallow and frieze-like groupings of the 1770s an important forerunner of David’s pictures in the 1780s. But the most important new work takes Greuze on his own terms, not simply as an influence or “phenomenon.” Michael Fried has been doing formal studies in the aesthetics of Greuze and Diderot that will be of interest to students of Garrick and Jefferson, as well as of Rousseau and David. Like Diderot himself, Fried finds a crucial interplay between painting, the theater, and society. His work will make it necessary to rethink much of eighteenth-century aesthetics.
While we await further installments of that work, the Hartford exhibit should at last call attention to the ideology behind Greuze’s painted sermons. Like most Enlightenment sermons, they were considered moral to the degree that they escaped from church. If Greuze admitted hermits and priests …
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Reading the Goncourts March 31, 1977