Greuze, Jean-Baptiste (French, 1725-1805)

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Jean-Baptiste Greuze was an important and well-renowned French painter of predominantly portraits and genre scenes, for which the influence of 17th Century Dutch masters was paramount. His technical gift for painting allowed him to gain a reputation for initiating the 18th Century trend of illustrating moral anecdotes in his paintings.

Born in 1725 in Lyon, Greuze initially completed artistic training in his hometown under the influence of a local portrait painter, Grandon, or Grondom, who encouraged the young Greuze in his studies against the wishes of his father. Greuze followed Grandon to Paris, where he strove to gain admission to the prestigious Royal Academy.

However, Greuze’s early presentations of his work, which often comprised genre scenes such as le Pere de famille expliquant la Bible a ses enfants (the father of the family explainting the bible to his children) did not initially gain favour with members of the Academy. It was even speculated that others had participated in the production of several paintings. However, as his skill grew, he began to win their unprecedented support, and was admitted to study – agrée – in 1755.  

In 1759, 1761 and 1763, Greuze presented paintings that were met with only increasing praise and celebration, until in 1765 he exhibited a grand total of thirteen paintings. Upon this occasion, the Academy noted that Greuze’s diploma picture was long delayed in its execution, and upon pressing him for its submission, he was forbidden from exhibiting until it was produced.

In 1769, Greuze exhibited his diploma picture, which he hoped would elevate his position from a genre painter to the most prestigious genre of historical painting. The history painting, when compared to the moral and sentimental genre scenes in which he excelled so well, was dreary and boring. He was awarded his status as an Academician, yet the Academy declared that the canvas he had produced recognised him as an Academician under the role as genre painter only – whilst his previous submissions were respected, his diploma picture was deemed unworthy.

Greuze was angered and incensed, and after arguing limitlessly with his now fellow Academicians, he refused to exhibit until 1804, when, during the Revolution, the Academy accepted any submissions. After deciding to work apart from the Academy, Greuze continued to paint moralizing pictures, but during the 1780’s his work began to go out of fashion, and his income stability suffered accordingly. Greuze died at the Louvre the year following his final 1804 submission to the Academy in great poverty, although his legacy lives on in his numerous works.