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


61.5 x 51 cm. (24 ¾ x 20 in.)

c. 1785.
Oil on oval canvas.

• France, Private Collection.

• Jean Martin, Œuvre de J.-B. Greuze : catalogue raisonné, suivi de la liste des gravures exécutées d’après ses ouvrages, H. Piazza, Paris, 1905, pp. 70-71.

“This talent for expressing the passions on canvas is very rare,
and Mr. Greuze carries it to the highest degree.”

An incomparable draughtsman who kept his distance from French rococo taste which he judged too frivolous, Jean-Baptiste Greuze emphasized the glorification of his subjects’ feelings which he thought should lift the viewer’s soul. Trained in the studio of the Lyonnais master Charles Grandon (1691-1762), whom he followed to Paris in 1750, Greuze subsequently received lessons from Charles-Joseph Natoire (1700-1777) at the Academy. He did not take the official route of competing for the Grand Prix de Rome, but nonetheless was approved (agréé) in 1755, thanks to his Father of the Family Reading the Bible to his Children (Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. RF 2016 3).
After a sojourn in Italy from which he only retained his work on facial expressions, Greuze initiated a new genre which stirred up critics. It consisted of genre scenes in which the arrangement of elements evoked the grand tradition of history painting, but in which expression of sentimental feelings reigned, an interest which was unprecedented in French painting and came out of multiple drawings from life. Known for his genre scenes, Greuze was also a talented portraitist whose commissions multiplied and who liked to depict children. Among these figures, the artist realized a few private portraits, that is, his own self-portraits.

“Greuze, says M. Lecarpentier, who knew him, was of medium height; he had a strong head, a very broad forehead, lively and well separated eyes, a spiritual face. His manner spoke of candor and a man of genius; it was even difficult not to say: “Here is Greuze, almost without ever having seen him.”[2]

In essence, self-portraits do not require commissions. They are personal, intimate works exempt from all artifice, appreciated for the psychological exercise they procur. Of this production, history has retained more than ten portraits of Greuze “by him himself” realized all through his career.
The first known example is dated around the year 1763. Through a very sketchy technique similar to our work, the artist presents himself to the view in studio attire, slightly turned three-quarters to the right, his face seen straight on: a position which the artist assumed in most of his self-portraits. This first version depicts the artist at about 40 years old, vigorous, when his flamboyant production was flourishing.

More than a portrait, self-portraits reflect not just the person, but also the artist: the flat surface incarnates the dialogue between a painter and his mirror. Beyond aesthetic qualities, the work thus posits the artist’s reflections on his own condition. In comparison to the version conserved in the Louvre, our unpublished work could date to around the year 1785. Greuze was then about 60 years old, he appears more fragile and diminished, but his calm gaze communicates a certain self-confidence. As was his custom, Greuze shows himself bust length and turned three-quarters to the right. His white curly hair is lightly powdered. Under his brown jacket with its blue turned-down collar, he wears a flowing white cravat and a lace jabot caught in a yellow vest.
Greuze doesn’t hide the physical traces of his age so as not to risk mishandling the dialogue with himself. He even seems to have a certain sympathy for the depiction of profiles of older men as can be seen in the portrait of his father-in-law François Babuti in 1761.

This last phase of the artist’s career gives way to a sketchier handling of his subjects: the artist abandons precision in lines and contours while privileging the use of color as an element for expressing the passions on canvas. The minute work in achieving a faithful depiction of flesh through touches of pink, which are sometimes brushed, and sometimes supple and enveloping, can be appreciated in our Self-Portrait. Special attention is given to the treatment of the face and even more so, to the psychological intensity of the serene gaze.
Although a certain austerity emanates from the work, the overall vision tends to gentleness and (sensual) pleasure: the limited chromatic range highlighted by the neck of the jacket with its blue turned-down collar is delicately handled with a few skillful long brush strokes. The gentle sensation is reinforced by the oval format of the work, as well as by the quick lines which define, on the one hand, the solid pale copper green background, and on the other, the rest of the torso, blended in shades of brown, symbolic of a modesty which he radiates.

“(…) above all, his portrait which he just painted of himself is applauded.”[3]

Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s delicate painting is touching to the eye and soul of the curious viewer who is intrigued by the gentle sensual brushwork which the painter demonstrates in each of his pictures. A painter of laborious felicity, of drama, of childhood, but above all, of portraits, Greuze was an artist who addressed the sensitivity of his time, depicted and personified feelings on the flat surface of the canvas: an ingeniousness which led to his success and glory.

transl. chr

[1]Anonymous, "Exposition de peintures, sculptures et gravures," L’année Littéraire, supplement 1761 (Deloynes no. 1272).
[2] Charles Blanc, "Etude sur Greuze," L’Artiste Greuze: sa vie et son oeuvre, Sa statue, Le musée Greuze, 1868, p. 119.
[3]C-L F; Lecarpentier, {}Notice sur Greuze lu dans la séance de la Société libre d’Emulation de Rouen, [Rouen], 1804, p. 7.

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