Emitting the ruling classes’ hautgout of perversion and decadence - the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze

4 March 1805, the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze died at the age of 79 in Paris.
“How pretty she is! She is a Greuze." (Victor Hugo)

Greuze’s “La Cruche cassée“, the broken jar, from 1771, the one Jean Paul Sartre’s respectable prostitute Lizzie owns as a print: “There we are. Everything's in place. The chairs around the table: that's more refined. Do you know anyone who sells prints? I'd like some pictures on the wall. I have a lovely one in my trunk. The Broken Pitcher, it's called. It shows a young girl; she's broken her pitcher, poor thing. It's French.”

Noble simplicity and calm grandeur. If it was not all Winckelmann fault then he was, at least, an animating spirit in the paradigm change of the arts that happened during the second half of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment was already in full swing when the Winckelmann-induced second major recourse on antiquity descended upon modern Europe. Under quite changed auspices than those of the Italian Renaissance 200 years before, though. The ideas of Aristotelian logic, Platonic philosophy and Athenian democracy had already been received and discussed and antique art admired before, but it was the Age of Enlightenment and the nascent scientific method of the 18th century that gave enthusiasts a systematic approach and a purpose in dealing with the days of yore. Now it was an artistic axiom to counter the art of the age of absolutism, Baroque with its flamboyantly cluttered playfulness with imagined Greek simplicity, symmetry and white marble, it was a challenge to authority of the ruling class itself. And within a few years, calm and simple virtues were assigned to the emerging middle class, became a counterdraft to the aristocratic roués and their poxed maîtresses and even gods and heroes of antiquity changed from larger-than-live beings giving Olympian laughter into stern paragons of high morals and self-sacrifice. In literature as well as the visual arts.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze: "Father Reading the Bible to his Family" (1755)

Rousseau and Diderot were not quite Savonarolas, and while Voltaire, old guard, naturally, laughed himself half silly about their bourgeois melodramas, from noble savages to le père de famille and l'honnête femme and the whole tragédie bourgeoise rigmarole, no works of art had to be burnt at the stake, like back then in Florence in the 1490s. Baroque art simply did not find buyers any longer and the crestfallen artists had to paint the sujets the affluent middle class and lower nobility wanted to see – lachrymose, uplifting and wholesome. And while some revelled under the change of paradigm and laughed back, like Hogarth in merry old England, Greuze, haec fabula docet as well, clothed the fashionable bourgeois sentiment in a new artistic guise. With a twist. Diderot fumed when he realised that the works of the creator of the sententious “Father reading the Bible to his family” from 1755 still emitted the ruling classes’ hautgout of perversion and decadence. When the dance floor of the French aristocracy finally collapsed in 1789 and the minuet dancing roués and maîtresses landed on the fixed bayonets of the mob, 63-years old Greuze, who had ruined himself by speculation, welcomed the revolution, of course, but was, by and large, ignored. His tearful sujets yielded to sterner stuff in public revolutionary taste and he died, almost unlamented, in 1805, his former great reputation almost forgotten. 

Jean-Baptiste Greuze: "the White Hat" (1780)

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