Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Biography of 18th-Century French Genre Painter and Portraitist.

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The Guitarist (1757)
National Museum in Warsaw.
By Jean-Baptiste-Greuze. One of the
greatest genre paintings of the
18th century.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)


Early Life and Training

The White Hat (1780)
By Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Reminiscent of Joshua Reynolds,
this subtle work is one of the
greatest portrait paintings of
the Rococo age in France.


Jean-Baptiste Greuze ranks among the most popular Old Masters in pre-Revolutionary France. Best-loved for his moralistic genre painting and later his exceptional portrait art, towards the end of the century his style of art was superceded by Neoclassical painting and he died in poverty. His main ambition, however, was to gain recognition for his history painting - a quest effectively squashed by the rejection of his submission Emperor Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla (1769, Louvre, Paris) by the French Academy in 1769. Nevertheless, Denis Diderot (1713-84), editor of the Encyclopedie (1751-72), described Greuze as representing the "highest ideal" of French painting of the day. Certainly his everyday scenes with their high-minded moral narrative are the equal of the greatest genre paintings of the 18th century, and place him alongside the likes of Jean Chardin (1699-1779) and the Le Nain Brothers (1600-77). His portraiture, too, combines the charm of Rococo art with some of the insight of Rembrandt. The best collections of his work are in the Louvre (Paris), the Wallace Collection (London), the Musee Fabre in Montpelier, and the Greuze Museum in Tournus. A good selection of his drawings are in the Albertina in Vienna and the British Museum.

For details of the pigments
used by Greuze in his
colour painting, please see:
18th-Century Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


Early Life and Training

Born in Tournus, Burgundy, he learned drawing from a Lyonnais painter Charles Grandon (1691-1762) whom he later accompanied to Paris, where he studied figure drawing at the school of the Royal Academy, under the Rococo artist Charles-Joseph Natoire (1700-77). Due to a combination of skill and good fortune, Greuze quickly drew attention to himself with his first important genre painting "A Father explaining the Bible to his Children" (1755) (Pere de famille expliquant la Bible a ses enfants). This work was immediately recommended to the French Academy by the eminent portrait and history painter Louis de Silvestre (1675-1760) - whose acclaimed portrait was painted by Greuze at about the same time - resulting in Greuze's election as an associate member of the academy. Another of his genre paintings, "The Blind Man Cheated" (1755), was also shown at the Paris Salon in 1755. At the age of 30, Greuze was now a made man, and his art was hailed as the triumph of Christian virtue over the immoral and whimsical painting of court favourite Francois Boucher (1703-1770). [Note: For another example of this type of immoral Rococo imagery, see: Pilgrimage to Cythera, by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). The critics were particularly enthusiastic about the moral content of his pictures, although they also had a tinge of preciosity that gradually turned into more overt sensuality, a characteristic feature of Greuze's work: see, for instance, "The Broken Jug/Pitcher" (1771, Louvre). His work showed he was a careful observer, as well as an admirer of Dutch Realist genre painting - with whom he shared a a delicate understanding for his subject matter.


Like many artists of his day - as well as cultured members of the public who experienced the Grand Tour - Greuze thought it necessary to educate himself with a trip to Italy. Accordingly, in later 1755, he set off for Naples and Rome with the Abbe Gougenot - the celebrated archeologist and member of the Grand Council - where he spent about a year. His travels in Italy gave him a taste for the picturesque. However, he seems to have remained unmoved by the fashion for classical antiquities (the treatise "Roman Antiquities" [1748] by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) was about to be published) or by the pre-Romantic enthusiasm of Hubert Robert (1733-1808), for the ruins and landscapes of Italy. His painting, instead, remains noteworthy for the type of face found in the works of the 17th-century Bolognese School, and he also introduced a new mode - "Young Girl Weeping over a Dead Bird" (1759, Louvre), the ambiguity of which caught the public imagination. Other works which carried away the audience with a new feeling of life included "The Spooler" (Devideuse) (1756) and "The Sleeping Knitter" (Tricoteuse) (1759, Huntington Library). It was also at this time that he painted one of his most enduring masterpieces - "The Guitarist" (1757, National Museum in Warsaw).

With "The Village Betrothal", shown at the 1761 Salon (Louvre), Greuze broke fresh ground, creating a genre scene with a historical background - a blend which enabled him to express his subjects' feeling more fully. The painting was a huge success, and he followed it with "The Paralytic nursed by his Children" (1763, Hermitage) and "The Beloved Mother" (1767, Collection of the Marquis de Laborde). The anecdotal quality of Greuze's work during this period is reminiscent of Jan Steen (1626-79), while at the same time it aims at the "grande idee" advocated by Diderot.

Alas, in 1769, Greuze suffered a major public embarassment when his historical picture "Emperor Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla" (1767-9, Louvre, Paris) - his submission to the Academy on his election as a full member - met with a very unflattering reception. He had confidently expected it would gain him first-rank membership as a historical painter, but instead he was received only as a painter of genre. Spoilt to some extent by his successes to date, Greuze could not forgive the Academy for this humiliation which he attributed to the jealousy of his fellow-artists. Perhaps in response to this setback the colours in his pictures became darker, the gestures more dignified, and attitudes and expressions - however humble the drama - are marked by a new tension.

He continued to enjoy huge success with his sentimental and melodramatic genre paintings, thanks partly to the way that he made use of the press to publicize his works. In addition, his standing with the Imperial Russian court was particularly high and he had many imitators, such as Michel Honore Bounieu (1740–1814), Etienne Aubry (1746–1781), Louis-Marc-Antoine Bilcoq (1755-1838) and Georg Melchior Kraus (1737-1806). When his genre paintings, varying in style between Jean Chardin and William Hogarth (1697-1764) - though without the latter's irony - began to fall out of favour around 1780, he turned to portraiture, a medium in which he also enjoyed considerable success. From the start of his career ("Self-Portrait", Louvre) he displayed as much finesse as the Baroque master Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), but with a feeling for realism which is reminiscent of Chardin and of Rembrandt. The candour that distinguishes his best portraits is found, too, in the admirable sets of drawings in the Hermitage and the Louvre.


Admired as one of France's best genre painters during the third quarter of the 18th century, Greuze also became one of the best portrait artists in Paris during his later years. Although his style may have been contrived, he was a brilliant master of it. His portraiture was at times sublime - for example, his "Portrait of Sophie Arnould" (1773, Wallace Collection) and his "Portrait of an Unknown Woman" (Van Horne collection, Montreal) and "The White Hat" (1780, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) rank among the most beautiful portraits of women ever produced by the French School - and his art exemplifies the French bourgeois ideal of art and morality. Compare the love and seduction paintings by Jean-Honore Fragonard, such as The Swing (Fragonard) (1767, Wallace Collection, London).

See also the Rococo portraits painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), the 18th century court portraitist to the French Queen Marie-Antoinette, and those by Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), the Rococo portraitist and Neoclassical history painter.

Portraits and genre paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze can be seen in several of the best art museums around the world.


• For more biographies of 18th century French genre painters, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important portraits and genre works, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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