Tag Archives: Greuze

Greuze and Diderot – Innocence Lost

27 Jun

My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her.

(Diderot)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird, 1765

It is no secret that I have a soft spot in my heart for the wistful, pale, delicate and gentle ingénues that inhabit the canvases of Jean-Baptist Greuze. This eighteenth century painter is often overlooked and misunderstood, his paintings are often brushed off as sentimental and silly which is not true. Although, ironically, these paintings are the embodiment of the spirit that swept Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century: the Sentimetalism; a movement that emphasises the emotional appeal of art over cold reason and logic. Greuze’s girls have a way of moving the viewer and making him sympathise with their sorrow. In some paintings, the girl’s eyes are large and turned upwards, expressing sorrow and yearning, and other times, their face expressions are almost blank, and they captivate the viewer because we want to know the secret behind their face expression. The sweet oval face of the girl with a broken pitcher seems expressionless, and yet the aura around her is tinged with melancholy.

One such viewer who was very moved by a particular Greuze’s painting was the writer, philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot, who, I must add, also wrote the wonderful novel “The Nun”. On the salon of 1765, Diderot saw Greuze’s painting “The Young Girl Grieving Over Her Dead Bird”; an oval portrait of a girl lamenting the death of her beloved little bird. The girl is dressed in white, as Greuze’s girls usually are. The life of the pretty white bird surrounded by blue flowers is gone – never to be returned. Still, the subject of a painting isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. It isn’t just about the dead bird, just as it is not about the broken eggs and broken mirrors and broken pitchers; these are the motives that you will see in the paintings bellow. Different motives here serve as metaphors that the viewers of the time surely understood. Diderot and some other critics saw these paintings as symbolic representations of the loss of innocence; a motif which had a great appeal to the buyers and collectors at the time. I can just imagine one of these girls as Marquis de Sade’s Justine, naive and easily exploited and abandoned, just like the girl in the painting “The Complaint of the Watch”; I already wrote a post about that painting which you can read here.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Dead Bird, 1800

Diderot, who was a friend of Greuze and loved his art, wrote a lenghtly monologue about the girl and the dead bird in his critic of the Salon of 1765 and here is what he wrote:

When one sees this piece, one says: Delightful! If one stops, or that one returns, one says Delightful! delightful! Soon one is surprised to find oneself speaking to the child, consoling her. This is so true that this is what I remember saying to her at dif-ferent times. “But my little one, your pain is very deep and thoughtful! What does this dreamy sadness mean! What! For a bird! You aren’t crying, you are deeply wounded; and the thoughts carry your wounds. There my little friend, open your heart, open up your heart to me; tell me the truth, is it really the death of this bird that forces you to retreat into yourself? You’ve lowered your eyes; you’re not answering me. Your tears are ready to flow. I am not a father; I am neither indiscreet nor punishing… Ah! So, I realize that he loved you, he swore his love to you and he swore it a long time ago. He suffered a great deal: the way to see suffering of those we love… Let me continue; why are you closing my mouth with your hand? … Unfortunately, that morning your mother was absent. He came; you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming! He had so much love in his eyes! So much truth in his expressions! He spoke those words that go straight to the heart! And while saying them, he was on his knees: I can still believe it. He held one of your hands; from time to time you felt the warmth of some tears which fell from your eyes and which ran the length of your arms.

Greuze, The Complaint of the Watch, 1770

Still your mother did not return. It is not your fault; it your mother’s fault… He doesn’t want your pretty tears… But what I am saying to you is not to make you cry. Why are you crying? He made you a promise; he will not allow anything to happen to what he promised you. When one has been given the happiness to meet a charming child like you, and become one, so as to please him; it is for life…- and my bird?…- You smile”. (Oh! My friend, how pretty she is! Oh if you only could have seen how she laughed and cried!). I went on. “So! As for your bird! When one loses oneself, does one remember one’s bird? When it came time for your mother to return, the one you loved left. How happy he was, contented, and transported; how difficult it was for him to tear himself away from you! How you stare at me! I know all this. How many times he stood to leave and sat down again! How many times he said goodbye without leaving. How many times did he go only to return! I just saw him at his father’s: he is overwhelmingly happy, a happiness in which everyone participates, without putting up any resistance….”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs, 1756

“And my mother? – Your mother? He had just left when she returned; she found you entranced, as you were a little while ago. One is always that way. Your mother was speaking to you, and you were not listening to what she was saying; she told you to do one thing and you did another. A few tears welled in the corners of your eyes; or you held them back, or you turned your head away to wipe them away furtively. Your unending daydreams made your mother impatient, and she scolded you and that gave you the opportunity to cry without restraint and to relieve your heart… Shall I continue, my dear? I fear that what I will say will continue your pain. You want me to? Your mother was upset with herself for making you unhappy; she came to you and took your hands, she kissed your forehead and cheeks, and you cried even more.”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Woman, c 1780s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Mirror, 1763

“Your head fell onto her and your face which continued to blush, there just as it is doing now, was hidden in hers. How many calming things your mother said to you, and how much these kind words hurt! Furthermore your canary wanted to screech, to warn you, to call you, to bat its wings, to complain of your forgetfulness, you didn’t see him, you didn’t hear him; you were thinking other thoughts. His water or feed went unfilled and this morning the bird was no more… You are still staring at me; is there anything left for me to say? Oh, I hear, my sweet thing; that bird, it is he who gave him to you; oh well, he will find another just as beautiful… That is not all: your eyes are fixed on me, and are filling again with tears; what else is there? Speak I can’t guess…- What insanity. Don’t worry about anything, my poor girl; it can’t be; it won’t be!”

Greuze, The Broken Pitcher, 1771

What! My friend, you are laughing at me! You are making fun of a serious person who presently is consoling the child in a painting who has lost her bird, or the loss of anything that you wish? Can you see how beautiful she is! How interesting she is! I hate to trouble her. In spite of that, it will not displease me to be the cause of her pain.The subject of this poem is so refined, that many have not heard it; they thought that this young girl was crying because of the canary. Greuze has already painted the same subject; he had placed a tall girl in white satin in front of a cracked mirror who appeared deeply saddened. Do you think that there will be as much gossip spoken about the young girl and her tears at the loss of a bird, than the sadness of the girl in the broken mirror in the last Salon? I am telling you that this child is crying over a different cause. First, you heard her, she agrees and her thoughtful pain says the rest. This pain! At her age and for a bird…

Working Class Heroines of the Rococo

4 Dec

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Dolce Far Niente and the paintings which feature pretty girls doing nothing. Well, in this post we’ll take a look at some 18th century paintings where pretty girls are not daydreaming and lounging around in flimsy dresses but ironing, doing the laundry, carrying tea, soaping linen…

Philip Mercier, Girl with a Tray, c. 1750

Rococo is an often overlooked era in the history of art. It’s deemed as kitschy, pink and frivolous, but if you scratch the surface you’ll discover many wonderful artistic inventions. After the extravagances of Baroque which favoured sacral themes, dramatic lightning and chiaro-scuro, in Rococo painters shifted their attention from saints and kings to everyday life with its everyday pleasures and pursuits. If Baroque is a dark night with blazing thunderstorms, then Rococo is a quiet morning full of lightness and possibilities. If Baroque is a turbulent stormy sea, then Rococo is a serene lake whose surface reflects the blueness of the clouds. Baroque is extravagant, grandiose, serious; Rococo is lighter, gentler, simpler. Rococo brings as in intimate spheres of people’s lives, but at the same time it’s not realistic, it doesn’t portray the harsh reality, the hard working conditions of the underprivileged and poor. Rococo idealises and lies, it doesn’t mirror the truth but instead offers a world of dreams and escapism. There is such a fragility about Rococo and especially about the paintings of Antoine Watteau which started the movement in the first place: it is so beautiful that it cannot last. Dreams always end.

Rococo is typically full paintings that present luxury and pleasure; handsome men and charming women in silk gowns lounging in gardens of everlasting spring, nudes, “fete galante”, Venuses and angels, painting such as Fragonard’s The Swing… The paintings in this post are something different. My fascination with the subject started when I saw Mercier’s girl bringing tea on Pinterest. I liked it a lot and I noticed a series of paintings from the same time period which feature the similar theme: girls doing a domestic work such as ironing, bringing tea or washing the laundry. These ladies are maids and not duchesses and yet they are worthy enough to occupy a canvas. This intrigued me. So, I envisaged this post as a brief overview of eight paintings by four different French and British painters, not as a detailed study of each painting. Also, I have to say that there is a parallel between these Rococo paintings and Dutch Baroque art of Vermeer: he also painted everyday women in simple interiors. Nothing posh, nothing luxurious.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761

Greuze shows us a rosy-cheeked Rococo maid who happens to be washing the laundry but has lifted her gaze towards us. One can sense a quiet curiosity in her eyes. And look at her mules; they were a very popular form of shoes for women in the eighteenth century. The wall behind her is grey, in the upper left corner red bricks are seen. From 1759 to about 1770s, there was a craze for Greuze’s genre paintings in the Parisian art circles.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder, c. 1759

Another painting by Greuze shows a very young girl dressed in gentle blue and white gown winding wool. She looks so young and dreamy with her pale face and fine blonde hair hidden underneath a white cap. The gentleness of her face reminds me of Raphael’s faces. She looks as if her skin was silky soft and her neck smells of lily of the valley. I sense wistfulness, a quiet melancholy in her blue eyes. The cat, on the other hand, seems amused by the thread of wool, you can tell just by looking at its eyes and the tail turned upward. As I gaze at the girl who, to me, exudes such chastity and naivety, I am thinking about her name; for me it’s Justine. It just dawned on me that perhaps she is the same girl who is sitting in her attic flat abandoned by a lover in Greuze’s painting The Complain of the Watch of which I’ve written earlier this year. I will imagine that she is. This painting is becoming dearer and dearer to me.

Philip Mercier, Portrait of a young woman, 1748

Philip Mercier was a French painter who was born in Berlin and died in London and he is well-known for making some portraits of the royals. This is the painting that started my fascination in the first place and it is my favourite painting out of all that I’ve presented here, and a rather simple one too; just a girl with porcelain skin and large dark eyes holding a tea tray. She is dressed in a light green dress. The model was possibly the artist’s maid Hannah. I like her straightforward gaze. Now something that I am interested in: who is the lucky person to be served by this beauty?

The painting below is Mercier’s work again and its dramatic light reminds me of Baroque. It shows two girls, perhaps sisters; one is sewing and the younger one is sucking her thumb.

Philip Mercier, A Girl Sewing, 1750

Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Woman peeling turnips, 1740

Chardin’s portrayal of the working class life is perhaps the most realistic, both in terms of style and content. Painted in dark, muted colours and earthy tones and presenting a gritty image of reality instead of silk-clad idealism of the previous paintings, and it lacks the glamour and sparkling colours of Mercier’s girls bringing tea. In “Woman peeling turnips”, Chardin presents us with an intimate and realistic scene of a woman sat on a chair, peeling turnips in her kitchen, dressed in simple garments. The wall behind her is bare and grey, and she is surrounded by things you’d normally find in a kitchen, pots and a pumpkin. Something distracted her for a moment and she is looking to the right. It looks as if Chardin really was in her kitchen. Chardin was a keen observer of everyday life and his paintings emphasise the values such as industriousness, loyalness to ones family and honesty, and this struck a cord with the middle-class buyers. Speaking of turnips, whoever is a fan of Blackadder will know that Baldrick loved them. Ha ha.

Henry Robert Morland, A Laundry Maid Ironing, c. 1765-82

A London-based painter of genre scenes, Henry Robert Morland, presents us here with two pretty ladies dresses in sumptuous silks perhaps too sumptuous for the position of a maid, but then again all these paintings, apart from Chardin’s woman peeling turnips are just dreamy idealised portraits of domestic scenes, and why portray reality when it was so gritty? The girl above is shows ironing and is very focused on her task, while the girl doing laundry in the painting below had to stop for a moment to show us her smile.

Henry Robert Morland, Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, c. 1765-82

Although artistically these paintings hold importance within their art movement, thematically we should embrace their light-heartedness. Unlike similar genre paintings of Victorian era, these Rococo portraits of beautiful working class heroines were not meant to convey a social message or serve as a social critique.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Complain of the Watch

29 Jul

The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went.” (Virginia Woolf)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Complain of the Watch, 1770

In a sad room a sad faced young thing is sitting on a chair. Indulged in a wistful reverie, she looks as ethereal and pale as a ghost, so lost in her thoughts that if someone happened to walk into her room, she’d probably seize to notice him. Behind her a bed and a barren wall as grey as her thoughts. Dressed in a loose white dress, an undergarment or a nightgown, the blonde girl is gazing in the distance with a pensive face expression. She’s holding a watch in her hand. Thin rays of sun coming through the small window provide the light in this poorly furnished attic room. Every night when the bells of a near-by church announce midnight, thin-legged spiders walk up and down the walls of her sad abode, greenish from the mould, weaving webs in the corners of the room, weaving webs in every corner of her heart. How could someone so young look so sad? Who dared to fill those blue eyes with tears and burden those slender white shoulders with woe?

Next to the girl is a small table, and on it a basket, some flowers and a letter. A letter which must hide all the secrets of her aching heart, a letter which hides the mystery behind her wistful reverie. I don’t know what the letter says, neither do you, but a little blackbird which sat on my windowsill today knows all the secrets from centuries gone by: he is a time travelling bird. It is a long tale of woe which I hesitate to retell, but I will tell you this: the lover loved and went, leaving nothing but a watch as a memory and empty words of goodbye; I can only assume it took more time for ink to dry than it did for his feelings of affection to cool down. Poor, poor girl, with her Rococo face and her Rococo sadness, what is she to do with her life now? Abandoned, alone, breathing in the perfume of lost hopes and sadness, while her wedding gown is being slowly eaten by moths in the wardrobe, her bouquet of flowers slowly withering as hours linger.