This replica of the last self-portrait of Jean-Baptiste Greuze painted in 1804, executed by his daughter Anna at her father's side and recently rediscovered, provides us with a poignant image of the great artist, represented with panache despite the disillusions of life.
1. Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Jean-Baptiste Greuze was the sixth child of a roofer from Tournus and retained a certain rusticity in his behaviour from his provincial childhood, beyond his taste for describing picturesque scenes of the countryside. He initially started training with a little-known painter from Lyon, Charles Grandon, before his genius was recognised in Paris where he became a full-time student of the Académie (of Painting) in 1755. He exhibited his work for the first time at the Salon during the summer of 1755, before leaving on a trip to Italy in the company of Louis Gougenot, abbot of Chezal-Benoît.
Upon his return to Paris, Greuze became a prolific painter, participating widely in the Salons held between 1759 and 1765, to which he sent no less than 63 paintings: numerous genre scenes (The Marriage Contract, The Beloved Mother), but also portraits of his family circle, of courtiers and art lovers, or of his colleagues.
The Academy closed the doors of the Salons to him in 1767 for not having produced his reception piece within six months of his reception, as was the tradition. He worked actively on this painting (Emperor Severus rebukes Caracalla, his son, for trying to assassinate him ) until the summer of 1769, tackling historical and mythological subjects for the first time. Once this was completed, he was then fully admitted to the Academy, but as a genre painter, and not as an historical painter, which had been one of the greatest humiliations of his life.
Greuze then refused any participation in events organised by the Academy or its successor, the Academy of Fine Arts until 1800. Abandoning history painting, he gave a new twist to genre scenes, bringing them closer to history painting, as in this pair of canvases which constitutes some of his masterpieces: The Paternal Curse: The Ungrateful Son and The Paternal Curse: The Punished Son .
Married in 1759 to Anne-Gabrielle Babuti, the daughter of a Parisian bookseller, his marriage was unhappy and his wife probably frequently unfaithful. The institution of divorce enabled him to record their separation in 1793, keeping his two daughters Anna-Geneviève, born in April 1762, and Louise-Gabrielle, born in May 1764, with him. Little is known about his daughter Anna except that she was herself a painter and lived with her father until his death. It is likely that most of the paintings she produced up to that date were attributed to her father, whose technique she shared to a great extent, making it extremely difficult to establish an autonomous corpus of her paintings.
Greuze died in his studio at the Louvre on March 21st 1805.
The attention paid to the expressivity of his characters and the emotional charge they convey enabled Jean-Baptiste Greuze to enjoy immense popularity with the eighteenth-century public, and they still constitute Greuze's true modernity. As the artist said, "I dipped my brush in my heart".
Greuze was also an exceptional draughtsman and a portraitist of immense talent and exceptional longevity who painted both the Dauphin (the son of Louis XV and father to Louis XVI) and the young Napoleon Bonaparte.
2. Greuze's self-portraits
Greuze was very much influenced by Dutch paintings during all his life. While the source of his inspiration for genre scenes can be found in Gerard Dou and in the painters of Leiden, Rembrandt's influence was certainly decisive in the creation of his many self-portraits.
It was not until 1800 that Greuze resumed his participation in the Salons. This self-portrait is one of six paintings sent, in the beginning of his eightieth year, to the Salon held during the summer of 1804. This is the last Salon in which he participated, 49 years after his first Salon in 1755. This portrait, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseilles, was painted shortly before the Salon of 1804. It is therefore a true farewell by Greuze both to his public and to the art of painting, since it is also one of his last paintings.
"Greuze was medium in size, he had a strong character, a very large forehead, deep-set lively eyes, a spiritual temperament. His approach announced frankness and genius, it was even difficult not to say "here is Greuze" without almost seeing him. "This description made by C.L. Lecarpentier in Notice about Greuze read in the session of the Société libre d'Emulation in Rouen (1805) gives us a description of the painter which reinforces the powerful impression produced by this painting.
In this last self-portrait Greuze reuses the composition of a portrait he had painted some fifty years earlier and which is now in the Musée de Tournus . He points to himself from the end of his pencil holder and this gesture, full of optimism in the earlier, youthful painting, can now be read as an affirmation, despite the weight of the years, of his continuing capability as a painter.
As underlined by Edgar Munhall in the Catalogue of the Greuze Exhibitions organised in 1976, this gesture full of self-confidence, which contrasts with the restless and fragile expression of the gaze, evokes the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to whom he has often been compared: "I want to show my fellow men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man will be me". Comparing it to Rembrandt's self-portraits, Arsène Houssaye wrote: "One will be surprised at the vigour of an eighty-year-old painter; it is as frank and true as a Rembrandt portrait; it is less proud and less beautiful, but there is that tender feeling that animates all of Greuze's portraits".
An oblique wall appears to the left of the painter (and therefore to the right of the painting) which was not in his early portrait. This wall, placed perpendicular to the junction between the hand and the pencil holder, creates an impression of confinement. It could evoke the inexorable march of time, the approaching end of his life. This twilight vision is reinforced by the choice of a dark chromatic range: a monochrome of brown, grey and wine lees, on which the whiteness of the hair and the delicacy of the complexion stand out.
There are two other versions of this portrait in public collections: one in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (Russia), the other (much less faithful) in the Phoenix Art Museum (Arizona - United States of America).
Our painting seems to have been painted by his daughter very soon after the one presented at the 1804 Salon, since the inscription at its back tells us that it was given in 1805, probably just after the painter's death, by his daughter Anna Greuze to the Countess de La Tour. The Catalogue Raisonné indicates that Greuze had painted a portrait of the Marquis de La Tour around 1780 (catalogue 1205). Although it is not possible to establish with certainty a link between this model and the recipient of this gift, we can assume that she was a close friend of the painter. As a farewell painting, our painting becomes, through the death of the painter and its transmission to a beloved one, a souvenir of his life.
It is very difficult to know to what extent Greuze may have been involved in the realisation of this painting during its execution by his daughter. Based upon the inscription on the frame, it is most probable however that Greuze was still alive when it has been painted. In any case, the technique appears to be very skilful: a very thin pictorial layer, today deeply rooted in the original canvas, and painted without apparent repentance.
This twilight self-portrait places us at the very heart of Greuze's work: by asserting his status as a painter, and by making this last self-portrait a true Allegory of Painting, Greuze takes his place in the History of Painting as a direct descendant of Rembrandt. By executing this replica during her father's last days, his daughter Anna reveals her immense complicity and, as one would have said during the eighteenth-century, her "filial piety". Finally, by donating this painting to a relative, she fulfils the role of transmission and remembrance that makes this painting such a moving relic of Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Main bibliographical references :
Camille Mauclair - Jean-Baptiste Greuze (followed by the Catalogue Raisonné de l'Œuvre peint et dessiné by J. Martin and C. Masson) Paris
Edgar Munhall - Jean-Baptiste Greuze 1725-1805 (catalogue of the exhibition organised successively at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon)
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