48.5 x 42 cm. (19 1/16 x 16 3/16 in.)
Oil on oval canvas
• Probably: Christie’s Sale, London, June 27th, 1891, n°120 Head of a Bacchante.
• France, Private collection.
• Jean Martin, Œuvre de J.-B. Greuze: catalogue raisonné, suivi de la liste des gravures exécutées d’après ses ouvrages, G. Rapilly, Paris, 1908, under number 428, p.30: “Bacchante. Seen from behind, head three-quarter [view] to the right. Hair, held by an ivy crown on the top of the head, floats around the face and falls over nude shoulders. A tiger skin is wrapped around the torso.”
“This talent for expressing the passions on canvas is very rare, and Mr. Greuze carries it to the highest degree.”
An incomparable draughtsman disassociated from French rocaille taste which he considered too frivolous, Jean-Baptiste Greuze emphasized the glorification of his subjects’ sensitivity which was supposed to elevate the viewers’ soul. Trained in the studio of the Lyonnais master Charles Grandon whom he followed to Paris in 1750, Greuze subsequently received 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, but nonetheless was approved for the Academy in 1755, with Reading the Bible (Lens, Louvre Museum).
After a stay in Italy of which he only retained his work on figural and facial expression, Greuze inaugurated a totally 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 feelings. 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 (ill. 1), 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.
In our drawing, with a rapid, supple, and inclusive strokes, Greuze presents a young girl who looks back over her shoulder to the viewer. Against a plain pale coppery green background, the softly blended lines in a restrained chromatic scale delicately form her curly hair crowned with ivy, as well as the tiger skin that hangs from her nude shoulders. Emphasizing the sweetness of childhood, a few quick brushstrokes sketch her delicate face, highlighted with thickly brushed pink touches to define her round cheeks.
Although our portrait illustrates the taste for depicting mythology which was very fashionable in the Academy, but above all for youth, a taste which connects with the moral preoccupations of the period including a growing interest in the middle classes, customs, respect for old age, childhood, and education reflected throughout the oeuvre of Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Greuze was to have many 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 painting of exalting feelings which place the figure of the child at the center of attention.