Childhood by Jean-Louis Greuze, Part 7 of the Introduction to Art and Artists of Our Time.
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Childhood By Jean-Louis Greuze.

By Jean-Louis Greuze.


...introduction continued;

    JEAN-LOUIS GREUZE, the third of the group of painters who stand as types of the Rococo, was born at Tournus in 1725, seven years earlier than Fragonard, who yet survived him by a year. His father was a master-tiler, as was Watteau's, and he had intended his son for an architect. He was to design houses instead of roofing them. But young Greuze meditated a higher flight - he would be a painter; his father resisted. He forbade his son to amuse himself with drawing and painting, but the boy persisted, and made up for the time lost by day in working at night when his father thought him asleep. In these stolen hours he made a drawing with the pen, copying a head of Saint James from some old engraving. His father, deceived at first into believing it a print, was too much pleased at the discovery of the child's talent, and sent him to Lyon to study with Gromdon, an artist of some local celebrity, whose daughter had married Gretry, the celebrated composer. Gromdon was rather a manufacturer of pictures than a painter, and the most that Greuze learned of him was to paint a picture in a day. Tired of this drudgery, he made his way to Paris, having for all baggage the beginnings of a talent peculiar to himself, and a picture to illustrate it - "A Father explaining the Bible to his Family."
    At Paris, poor, unknown, bringing recommendations to none, it is not strange that Greuze made his way but slowly. The mechanical processes he had mastered at Lyons assisting his natural talent enabled him to produce a sufficient number of small pictures, by which he gained his bread while he waited on fortune; but meanwhile the "Father explaining the Bible to his Family" found no purchaser. His pictures must, however, have drawn public attention to him; for, on the one hand we are told that the sculptor Pigalle recognized his talent, encouraged him, and predicted success for him; while, on the other hand, we hear of jealousies, hostilities and ill-will - all of which evil-seeming things, to a man conscious of talent, are only praise in disguise. At the Academy, where he went to draw, he was given a back-seat; his talent winning him no consideration. Doubtless Greuze's temper counted for something in his slow progress toward recognition. More than one anecdote remains to show that Greuze had a sharp tongue, and was not sparing in the use of it. Among others, there is one that relates to the time when he was a pupil at the Academy. He had made a drawing of the male model, and Natoire, who was then his professor, having given it a few words of praise, remarked incidentally that Greuze had made the man cross-eyed; to which the pupil answered, "You would be very happy, Monsieur, if you could do as well yourself!" To such unmannerly youth fate is wont to deal out back-seats. But Greuze was not of the temper to bear contempt in patience. He took his drawings to Sylvestre, an old drawing-teacher of the royal children, and submitted them to his judgment. Sylvestre was charmed; he sat to the artist for his portrait, and taking him under his wing, made him a candidate for the Academy. This was in 1755, when Greuze was just this side of thirty. Ten years passed, and Greuze had not yet sent in the customary picture which, if accepted, would entitle the candidate to be received Academician. The Academy complained of the delay, and two years later, in 1767, Greuze not having produced the picture, he was cut off from the privilege of exhibiting at the Salon. It was not until 1769 that he finally offered to the Academy an historical painting, which had for subject - after the stilted fashion of Academic pictures since Academies were - "Septimus Severus reproaching his son Caracalla with attempting his life in the glens of Scotland and saying to him - 'If you wish for my death order Papinian to give the blow.'" The Academy met, and while Greuze, confident of success, waited in a neighboring room, the members gathered about the picture placed upon an easel, and discussed its merits. After an hour of waiting the doors were thrown open, and Greuze was ushered into the apartment where the Academicians stood ready to receive him. "Sir," said the Director, "the Academy accepts you, and is ready to administer the oath." The ceremonies ended, the Director continued: "Sir, the Academy has received you, but it is as a painter of genre. It has remembered your previous paintings; they are excellent; it has closed its eyes before the present work: it is unworthy of your talent and unworthy of the Academy." There was more in this verdict than met the ear. Accepted as a painter of history, Greuze would have had, ex officio, the place and the pay of Professor with all the honorary appointments belonging to that position. The title of painter of genre - that is, of subjects of another kind than history, carried with it no special honor, and its conferring tended rather to lower his position with the public than to raise it. Greuze, whose temper, as we have seen, was none of the best, attempted to dispute the verdict of his judges; they listened to him quietly, but while he spoke, the artist Lagrenee drew a pencil from his pocket and corrected upon the canvas the mistakes in drawing in the figures.
    Greuze is not the first artist who has mistaken his vocation; but some have the grace to recognize the fact, a grace denied to Greuze. In love with his own work, devoured with vanity, irritable by nature and made still more so by criticism of which he could not endure the least touch, he angrily rebelled against the decision of the Academy, and in his heat refused to accept the offered title. He was met , however, by the official order: "Monsieur, the King wishes you to accept it" - and resistance was useless. He was dragged to the water but he could not be made to drink; he refused to send his pictures to the exhibitions, and ceased to do so after 1769, the year of his election. Carrying his spite still further, he quitted Paris and went to live for a time in Anjou, where he lodged with a friend and painted a number of pictures. He returned to Paris and continued his little war against the Academy, still refusing to send anything to the Salon, declaring that there was nothing but colored prints to be seen there, and that if people wanted to see pictures they must come to his studio! And they did come. He held an exhibition of his own, antedating by a hundred years the revolt of Courbet and the Impressionists in our own time who, rejected or ill-treated by the Salon, improvised Salons of their own at the very doors of the temple. To Greuze's exhibition the fashionable world flocked in crowds, and a visit to his studio became one of the social duties of every woman who wished to maintain her place in that world. The highest society, the greatest titles, the court itself, the nobility, princes of the blood, kings visiting Paris, came to admire in Greuze's house the portrait of Franklin, the "Pate Curse," the "Will Destroyed," the "Broken Jug" and "The Mother-in-law." And follow the lead of lords and ladies, came the citizens and their wives - since art was all the mood among others, Madame Roland is discerned. She has left a pleasant glimpse of herself and Greuze in a letter describing her visit.
    "The Father's Curse," and "The Broken Pitcher" - these two pictures seen at the same time by Madame Roland in Greuze's studio may stand as representatives of the two classes in which his works easily divide themselves: his domestic and so-called "moral" subjects, as his "heads" of young people and children. Both these pictures are in the Louvre: "The Broken Pitcher" ("La Cruche Cassee") and "A Father explaining the Bible to his Family have enjoyed a wide popularity and have been many times engraved. Instead of reproducing these examples of Greuze's art we prefer to present our readers with others equally representative but not so familiar. "The Dead Bird" belongs to the same class as "The Broken Pitcher," and the "Childhood" is as good an example as could be found of the "Head". To the other class belongs the "Village Betrothal."



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