Jean-Baptiste GREUZE (Tournus, 1725 – Paris, 1805)

Head of a Young Boy

48 x 38 cm. 18 78 x 14 1516 in.)

Oil on canvas


  • Private Collection.

Greuze, who should be regarded as the painter of the soul’s passions, is unique in the French School.” P.-M. Gault de Saint-Germain

This talent for expressing the passions on canvas is very rare, and Mr. Greuze carries it to its highest degree [of perfection].” Anonymous, 1761

What is perhaps most striking in Jean-Baptiste Greuze is his independent spirit. An incomparable draughtsman distanced from French rococo taste which he considered too frivolous, Greuze emphasized and glorified his subjects’ sensitivities in order to elevate the viewer’s soul. Trained in the studio of the Lyonnais master Charles Grandon whom he followed to Paris in 1750, Greuze subsequently took lessons from Natoire at the Academy. He did not embark on the official path of competing for prizes, which culminated in the Grand Prix de Rome, yet was approved for the Academy in 1755, with Reading the Bible (Lens, Louvre Museum) which depicts a father reading scriptures to his family.

After a stay in Italy, of which he only retained his work on figural and facial expression, Greuze inaugurated a new genre which caused a sensation among critics. His genre scenes evoked grand history painting in the staging of individual elements, but were dominated by the expression of sentiments. This entirely new interest, hitherto unseen in French painting, emerged as a result of his multiple drawings from life. As a matter of fact, as an attentive observer, Greuze sketched many portraits of children in which he captured a natural spontaneity that transformed them into propitious subjects for thought and which even his most erudite contemporaries found ravishing. Diderot, especially, whose profile he drew in 1766, appreciated his painting for the psychological and philosophical exercise which it gave him. An influential defendant of Greuze’s painting, he evoked the painter’s “delicate sensitive soul” and his ability to depict the lively spirit of youth.

With the quick, supple and enveloping line that can be found in Fright, and on a canvas prepared with an ivory colored ground, the artist presents the face of a young boy in profile, as if interrupted in his movement by the painter’s intervention. A few brisk brushstrokes sketch the child’s rumpled hair and delicate features. Soft melting lines in a restrained chromatic scale which is characteristic of Greuze, are simply highlighted with thick touches of pink which define round cheeks and emphasize the sweetness of childhood.

Our portrait illustrates the taste for depicting youth, and thus connects to the period’s moral preoccupations with its growing interest in average conditions, the rustic world and customs, respect of old age, childhood, and education: all are reflected in Greuze’s oeuvre.

Greuze would have numerous imitators, none of whom would ever equal the dramatic intensity of his work. Through his portraits, of which our work is a perfect example, Greuze developed a new genre, a style of painting which exalted feelings and for the first time made an average carefree, innocent condition the center of attention.
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General Bibliography (Unpublished Work):

Martin Jean, J.-B. Greuze catalogue raisonné, G. Rapilly, 9, quai Malaquais, Paris, 1908.

Munhall Edgar, Novosselskaya Irina, Greuze the Drafstman, exhibition catalogue, New York, The Frick Collection, May 14th to August 2nd, 2002, London, Merrell, 2002.

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