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Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - Claude Watelet (1765)
Portrait of Claude-Henri Watalet, 1763

Tomorrow is the birthday of French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, born in 1725, in the east central region of France. His style of portraiture has at times a strong British influence, yet other times he is distinctly French, and other times the influence of Venetian color is highly evident. Greuze would later become eclipsed by other French giants such as David and Ingres, but what he may have lacked in consistency of style he made up for in emotion and mood, when he did get it right. His greatest strength was his draftsmanship, as his drawings that survived prove he could draw, and draw incredibly well. He had a unique cross-hatching style that is deceptively complex to imitate, and he often imbued those portraits with more character and personality than many of his very best paintings.

The above portrait of Claude-Henri Watalet, respected engraver, painter, writer, art lover and expert on gardens, reveals a man highly esteemed by Greuze. The way those pearl-colored highlights are painstakingly brushed on that jacket and pants seems to defy belief. Watalet is holding calipers close to himself while studying a bronze statuette of the Venus De' Medici, and his left hand firmly planted on the book at his desk. Greuze has him lit from above, leaving the background in shadow that softens gradually towards the left of the painting. This is a flattering tribute to someone who had great respect for the arts.

The Guitarist, 1757

This is an amazing portrait. I love this painting. Puzzling how most of Greuze's portraits are quite ordinary and suddenly something like this comes along...a guitarist tuning his guitar. Note how his body forms a dynamic S-shape, with that blue cape underlining and strengthening his posture, adding a form of visual musicality itself. The striped pant is reminiscent of Italian painting and the harlequin clown character of the 16th century. His expression looking at us is equally intriguing as he listens for the right note...yet this would have worked just as well if he was looking off in another direction. It is rare to see such personality in a portrait that makes us curious about who the guitarist is.

Greuze Study of a girl
Study of a girl, ca.1777

Observe Greuze's very confident line work here. He makes quick work of a thoughtful portrait with only one color, lit from top right...again, that intricate cross-hatching is something not everyone would use to define a shadow area, especially a young female, yet Greuze handles it with seemingly little effort. I can only wonder how fast it took him to draw this...possibly under twenty five minutes.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - Student with a Lesson-book - WGA10674
Student with a Lesson book, 1757

This seems almost spun from a Dicken's novel, and yet look at the presence and depth Greuze has given this young girl, lost in thought. That brushwork on the face seems to mimic that cross-hatching of his drawings. Note the contrast of her soft red hair with the well-worn school jacket. Even the pages show frequent reading of that little book. Greuze demonstrates a respect for children as young adults in the truest sense of the word, in a time where the Industrial Revolution over the following hundred years and its horrors would reveal, enslaving young kids with little pay for very long hours, regardless of their education.

Greuze was a pioneer at a time when art in France began to really blossom, and he is definitely worth studying, especially his drawings. When his powers of portraiture were properly focused, he rivalled his successors easily.


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