Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Jean-Baptiste Greuze; drawing by David Levine

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.”1 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.2

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.3 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 into some of his consolation scenes, it was only as Sterne’s sentimental traveler gave his snuff box to the Franciscan “with a stream of good nature in his eyes.” It was the final triumph of anticlericalism to love even a cleric, to find human nature in the most unlikely place of all.

Like most of his moralizing contemporaries, Greuze preached from the central text of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edgar Munhall, crediting the idea to Andrew McLaren Young, traces the Girl Weeping Over Her Dead Bird (44) to Catullus iii. A tougher reading, truer to what Diderot saw in Greuze, might be glossed from D’Alembert’s Dream, where Diderot tells the mathematician this Story of a Bird:

First [in the egg] there is a wavering speck, a lengthening and darkening thread, fleshing itself out, beak, wing-tips, eyes, claws becoming visible. A yellowish substance arranges itself into intestines. It is animate. The animal moves, thrashes, peeps—I can hear it through the shell! It becomes furry; it looks about. The heaviness of its wavering head throws the beak repeatedly against the inner prison-wall—see it broken through! It emerges, walks, flies, is irritated, skits off, comes near; it moans, suffers, loves, yearns, plays. It has all your affections. All you can do, it does.4

Lockean sensationalism established the linkage between all animals. To Locke’s less godly followers, man was just a better organized animal. And even that “sophistication” had been purchased at a price. Animals could recall man to the basic instincts in useful ways. That is why dogs play such an important part in the family life of Greuze’s subjects. Dogs guard all these good homes, unmask invaders, protest family division. Large cats and small birds join in this common front of sensate things. The typical Greuze ménage is a menagerie. All this petting of pets is a part of the ideology that called for a return to nature.


This is clearest in the two drawings (41, 42) that deal with breast-feeding, a favorite cause of the Encyclopedists. In the first picture the wet nurse, come to pick up the baby, is accompanied by a rough and insensible muleteer, whose mastiff threatens the household dog. But that dog stands its ground, protecting the older children even as the infant is taken away. In the second picture, the child—now walking—is returned, but cringes from its stranger-mother back toward the familiar nurse. The cat, too, has backed away from the scene; but the trusty dog recognizes something familiar here, and is claiming the baby with its sniffs. The reality of the family bond is put to an epistemological test, with a powerful moral: trust the senses.5

The dogs’ responses reflected the benign sensationalism of Locke; but there was also a darker side to that philosophy. If men and women respond automatically, by nature, to the pull of pleasure and push of pain, how can unselfish acts ever take place? Mandeville agreed with Hobbes that they were impossible, while the schools of reason and conscience dug in their heels for brilliant rearguard actions (by Wollaston and Butler). But something more daring was needed to confront Locke’s challenge, and in 1725 the Scottish philosopher Francis. Hutcheson came up with it, in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.

Hutcheson granted Locke’s premises; agreed that benevolence cannot be motivated by another’s need (the beneficiary’s), only by one’s own (the benefactor’s)—and then traced that need to a quasi-aesthetic delight in the spectacle of benevolence (we cheer the play’s hero, though we are not the beneficiaries of his action). For Hutcheson, the mechanics of benevolence involved a minimum of four people—a first benefactor and his beneficiary, a spectator of that benefaction, who then repeats it to prolong his pleasure, with a new beneficiary. Adam Smith said there was, logically, a fifth component: it was as a spectator that the second benefactor was put into motion, and he must remain a spectator to enjoy his own act, continuing to receive the first impulse that put him in motion. He calls this “the man within,” the “disinterested spectator,” who resembles the “spectateur froid et tranquille” of Diderot, coolly resident inside any great actor in his or her most heated flights of emotion.6

Hutcheson’s ethical theory was at the very heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it traveled to the continent in the works of men like Burlamaqui, where it coalesced with the doctrine of sensibilité preached by Buffier and others. Through Jaucourt it entered the important Encyclopédie articles on sens, sensibilité, and sentiment. Those articles appeared in the delayed volumes of 1765—but their content had long been accepted as the doctrine on sentiment in the Encyclopedist circles where Greuze and Diderot exchanged ideas. Benevolence became a spectacle, with billiard-ball effect on spectators, spreading (as Hume put it) by contagion. The bienfaisance of the French shared these three notes with Scottish “benevolence”—the response is always social, pre-logical, and mechanistic. All these themes are present in Greuze’s work—

Social: Hume and others granted that selfish fear and needs were more powerful, taken singly, than any social affections taken singly. But the “finer” pleasures were woven into a whole texture of motives, fortified by public regard. A man who might yield to selfishness while alone would be ashamed to do so in public. That is why even the most intimate domestic scene in Greuze is a whole theater of interacting responses. Diderot expressly defends the probability of this suspension of selfish concerns in the shared sensibility of Greuze’s 1763 Paralytic Comforted by his Family—cf. Fried, Studies in Voltaire, p. 756. (In this picture, by the way, feeling is so diffused across the sensible web of animate reaction that the family dog, still nursing her pups, has risen to look at the object of the others’ anxiety.) The communication of person with person marks the stages in a single process, that process Hutcheson gave at least four parts to.

Pre-Logical: Fried rightly points out that Greuze is rarely allegorical. That makes all the more interesting such items in this exhibit as Number 100 (Innocence Carried Off by Cupid) and the autobiographical Numbers 89 and 90 (The Boat of Happiness and The Boat of Misfortune). In the large picture of Innocence, cherubs do what dogs had done in the earlier domestic scenes—hold back those who would impede the heroine, tug at clothes, frisk around the action to accentuate its unity. Their role is confirmed by the dog who trots out ahead of them, binding together the angels of man’s inner senses (defined by Hutcheson as the aesthetic and the benevolent) with the animal senses. The reflective figure who tries to check Innocence is the Head, at war with the Heart, where good Hutchesonians would say the heart must rule.


Greuze commented on his own unhappy marriage in several of the works seen here (Numbers 89, 90, 96, and 97). In The Boat of Happiness, an ink-and-brush sketch, a married couple rows together, with the angel of their better nature lending his winged strength to the oars. Children sleep happily in the skiff. But in the companion picture, the wife has abandoned her oar, the children are awake and squabbling, the husband wrestles the boat away from a waterfall. Most important, the spirit of accord is seen flying off. In Greuze, as in Diderot, sentiment is rational, but not reasoned-to. The heart must “prevent” (precede) the head, if there is to be any action at all. Reason can expose one to the occasions for sentiment (e.g., by reading Sterne or looking at Greuze paintings), but it cannot stimulate to action all by itself. And where sentiment does not stir—as Greuze came to feel in his own marriage—no argument of duty can restore affection.

The automatic nature of affective response is portrayed in those almost-somnambulist “absorbed” paintings Fried draws attention to. He has not, yet, related this to D’Alembert’s Dream, where the sleeping philosopher is equated with the waking doctor; but there is no more eloquent statement of the theme that morality arises from response to all of nature’s promptings. In the dream, d’Alembert both philosophizes nobly and undergoes an orgasm. The whole range of responses, animal to semi-angelic, is sounded. This seems to be the kind of ape-angel union Greuze was trying to catch in his studies of young virgins whose smiles are both innocent and sensual. We have assumed too long that the sensuality was covert or disguised. But there was no reason Greuze would feel it wrong to reveal both the animal and the angelic in even the finest natures, those still responding freely to an uncorrupted heart. His girls were not originally Lolitas, because he felt none of Humbert’s moral qualms about enjoying their beauty.

Mechanistic: Newton had made the mechanical structure of the universe a model for all beautiful composition. Diderot compared Greuze’s paintings to machines for producing sentiment; their patterns of human action-reaction are constructed with a causal sense of psychological motion. The Fowler (12) actually shows us a rustic dandy wound round on himself like an engine for seduction. We are shown how this or that response is elicited, in chainreactions of emotion. The symbol for this is often the clothing that binds or connects characters. Family groups are woven into chains of human solidarity. When a tear in the social fabric occurs, it can be presented as a tugging at clothes (as in The Father’s Curse, Number 84), the trailing of torn or stolen garments (as in The Cruel Father’s Death, Number 52).

Greuze is not often overtly symbolic—which has led to overemphasis on his dead birds and broken mirrors as tokens of lost virginity. His ideology of human interactions could be represented literally; it was only when we lost our grasp of that ideology that his moral scenes became vapid. They were taken as bad sermons for Christianity, when they are actually brilliant sermons for eighteenth-century “sentiment”—which stood closer to both sensuality and science than to what “sentiment” has come to mean in more recent times.

The Hartford (and San Francisco) exhibit is stunning—114 works in all, with eleven withheld in Hartford, eighteen in San Francisco, to prevent a catastrophic blow to all Greuze masterworks. The only very important pictures withheld from Hartford for display in San Francisco are The Village Bride (34) and Septimius Severus (70). The famous portrait of Greuze’s father-in-law (26) will be seen only in Dijon. Otherwise the collection is fairly well balanced. True, Munhall’s own preferences are registered in the special emphasis on history paintings and the exclusion of all but one (73) of those pretty-girl “expressive heads” that shock or sicken some people. The Hermitage lent none of its paintings, and the important Father Reading to his Family continues to be hidden by its owner, even from Greuze scholars. How ironic that a key work by Greuze, who held that virtue resided in public benevolence and shared moral impulse, should be sequestered somewhere for private enjoyment!

This Issue

February 17, 1977