The French painter Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) was most famous for his sentimental genre scenes of peasant life.
Jean Baptiste Greuze was born at Tournus on Aug. 21, 1725. His early life is obscure, but he studied painting in Lyons and appeared in Paris about 1750. He entered the Royal Academy as a student and worked with Charles Joseph Natoire, a prominent decorative painter. During the 1760s Greuze achieved a significant reputation with his sentimental paintings of peasants or lower-class people seen in humble surroundings and in the midst of theatrically emotional family situations; examples are The Village Bride (1761), The Father's Curse (1765), and The Prodigal Son (1765).
In 1769 Greuze was admitted to the academy as a genre painter. Ambitious to become a member of the academy as a history painter, which was a higher rank, he was so angered by his admission as only a genre painter that he refused to show his paintings at the academy's exhibitions (the Salons). But by that time he was already famous and could afford to ignore the Salons.
French painting during the 18th century was dominated by the rococo style. Rococo painting was aristocratic in nature, elegant, and sensuous; stylistically it depended upon soft colors, complex surfaces, refined textures, free brushwork, and asymmetrical compositions based upon the interplay of curved lines and masses. Produced for highly sophisticated patrons, rococo painting concentrated on aristocratic diversions, decorative portraits, mythological and allegorical themes frequently treated in a playful or erotic manner, and idyllic pastoral scenes.
Greuze's pretentiously moralizing rustic dramas constituted a reaction against rococo frivolity in art; by appealing to emotion they were also a revolt against the emphasis placed upon reason and science by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that pervaded the first half of the 18th century. A strong undercurrent of emotionalism appeared early in the artistic and intellectual history of the century, but it manifested itself with genuine vigor only after about 1760. In this context, Greuze's work is but one facet of a general cultural phenomenon that emphasized "sentiment" and appeared in novels, plays, poetry, and the protoromantic philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
The rising importance of the middle class, and of middle-class morality, also played a part in the success of Greuze's cottage genre. His work seemed to preach the homely virtues of the simple life, a "return to nature," and the honesty of unaffected emotion. The blatant melodrama of his preaching was not found offensive, and visitors to the Salons wept in front of his paintings. The intellectuals of the day were generally opposed to the rococo as a decadent style; rather paradoxically, Greuze's most influential champion was Denis Diderot, one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, who hailed Greuze as "the painter of virtue, the rescuer of corrupted morality." The fashion for simplicity and the "natural man" penetrated the highest circles, and engravings of Greuze's work were popular with all classes of society.
In terms of style, Greuze has been linked to neoclassicism. The complexity of his compositions, however, and his interest in surface textures place him within the general stylistic pattern of his period. In his sensual paintings of girls (such as The Morning Prayer and The Milkmaid), with their veiled eroticism, pale colors, and soft tonality, his connection with the rococo is most evident. Some of Greuze's best work is to be seen in his portraits (for example, Étienne Jeaurat), which are often sensitive and direct.
Greuze survived the French Revolution but his fame did not. He died in Paris on March 21, 1805, in poverty and obscurity.
The most important work on Greuze is in French. References to Greuze in English are in François Fosca, The Eighteenth Century: Watteau to Tiepolo (trans. 1952), and Arno Schönberger and Halldor Söehner, The Rococo Age (1960), a handsomely illustrated work dealing with many facets of 18th-century culture. For an extremely interesting view of Greuze within the context of 18th-century painting in general see Michael Levy, Rococo to Revolution (1966).