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An 18th-century painter of melodramatic genre, morality lessons, female figures and portraits whose subjects included Mozart and
Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze was born in the Burgundy region
of France. He spent most of his career in Paris, where he was mentored
by a portrait artist from Lyon named Grandon (Grondom). This
artist was an advocate for the young Greuze, whose father had
discouraged him from following his art talents. In Paris, Greuze
worked from the live model at the Royal Academy. Gradually his
work attracted the attention of members of the nobility such as the
family of Madame d'Epinay, a French writer whose love affairs included
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot.
In 1755, Greuze's painting, Father Reading the Bible, was judged accomplished enough to merit much
encouragement from Academicians. That same year, he went to
Italy with Abbé Louis Gougenot, who had influence among fine art
professionals, which led to Greuze being elected him an honorary member
of the Royal Academy in Italy because of his accomplishments in
allegory and mythology. However, he was not encouraged by the
exposure he got in Italy, and returned to Paris in search of better
training for portraiture, genre and figure work.
Beginning in the late 1850s, he received increasing accolades for his
painting, which influenced by Rousseau, was getting increasingly
naturalistic. By 1765, he had reached a great high point with the
exhibition of thirteen paintings at the Academy's Salon. However, members
gave him a tough time because they demanded that he show them a diploma
from an accredited art institution, something he did not have.
The Academy finally received him as a new member with all honours but
as a genre painter, meaning he was not officially recognized for his
portraits or history canvases. In 1769, Salon organizers rejected his painting, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla,
and Greuze was so angered that he did
not exhibit again until 1804, when the Academy was much less rigid
because of the Revolution breaking down aristocratic barriers.
However, by that time his subjects and Neo-Classical style had waned in
The next year, 1805, Jean-Baptiste Greuze died in the Louvre. He
was impoverished, having been wealthy but having squandered his fortune
and also losing money to an embezelling wife. During his last
years, he was desperate for commissions but diminished in talent, which
meant that much of his late work was lacking in the quality for which
he had been known. One of his last paintings was an 1804 portrait of Napolean Bonaparte.
Greuze left many paintings, many which are in the Louvre as well as the
Wallace Collection in London, the Musée Fabre in Montpellier and a
museum dedicated to him in his hometown of Tournus.
Normand, J. B. Greuze (1892); Emma Barker, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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