Greuze, Jean-Baptiste

Tournus 1725 - Paris 1805
Biography & List of works

L’Attention

Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 57 x 47.5 cm

Signed: Signed and dated lower-left: J. B. Greuze 1780

Provenance:

Vente Firmin Didot, Hôtel Bullion, Paris, 6 April 1825, p. 60, no. 142, as ‘Une jeune fille parait s’arrêter, en courant, pour écouter ou pour regarder; elle est vue à mi-corps, vêtue de noir, et les cheveux un peu en désordre. Tableau du meilleur temps de l’auteur. H. 22 p. 61., L. 18 p. 61. T.’ [equivalent 56 x 46 cm]; Vente Jean-Pierre Collot, Hôtel des Ventes 42, rue des Jeuneurs, Paris, 29 May 1852, p. 33, no. 39, as ‘C’est une jeune femme au teint frais et rosé, à la peau veloutée et douce. Elle fixe ses jolis yeux sur quelque chose d’invisible qu’elle semble regarder avec un intérêt passionné. Ses cheveux relevés sur son front sont ramenés au sommet de sa tête par une natte fixée par un ruban rouge. Elle porte une robe grise boutonnée au corsage, sur lequel retombe le bord de sa chemise. Un petit fichu blanc bordé de trois raies rouges est jeté négligemment sur ses épaules, et laisse à découvert l’éclatante blancheur de son sein. Haut. 0m. 57c. Larg. 0m. 47c.’; Vente Jean-Pierre Collot, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 29 March 1855, p. 51, no. 34, ‘Haut. 0m. 57c. Larg. 0m. 47c.’, sold for 1350 francs. 

Literature:

C. Mauclair, Jean Baptiste Greuze, Paris, 1906, no. 417, Mauclair erroneously records the dimensions as ‘3 [sic] 7 x 47cm’ and repeats the provenance above, noting the painting is signed and dated J. B. Greuze 1780. 

The young woman portrayed here appears to be paying eager attention to an unknown protagonist or is perhaps gazing at some object invisible to the viewer; in either case we may only guess at the subject of her attention. It dates from the height of Greuze’s career when he had already enjoyed considerable success with the large scale moralizing subject paintings that are among his most important artistic achievements. Its first known owner was the renowned publisher, Firmin Didot (1764-1836 ) who sold it in 1825 along with two other works by Greuze, the artist’s self-portrait and a portrait described as being of the actress Sophie Arnould.[1] It was then acquired by Jean-Pierre Collot (1774-1852), who as a young man had been an admirer of the future Emperor Napoleon and helped finance the coup of 18 Brumaire of 1799.[2] It went unsold along with most of the Collot collection in his 1852 sale (probably because of the extremely unsettled political environment) but fetched 1350 francs when it was reoffered in 1855.

Greuze was greatly admired in his lifetime and by those collectors such as the 4th Marquess of Hertford (whose natural son gave it to the nation as the Wallace Collection) and various Rothschilds who resurrected the taste for eighteenth century art in the second half of the nineteenth century. More recently, a reaction against what was perceived as an obsessively sentimental approach to painting lead to a decline in the middle of the twentieth century that was arrested by the monographic exhibition organized by Edgar Munhall and held at Hartford in 1976,[3] by a biography by Anita Brookner[4] and his inclusion in several of the recent major exhibitions of French eighteenth century art. More recently, Munhall’s book Greuze the Draftsman (2002)[5] has enabled us to appreciate the artist’s considerable natural talent and how he employed his drawings in composing his multi-figure works. Far more wide ranging in talent than his popular images of pretty girls inappropriately disguised as ‘chastity’ or ‘innocence’ lead one to expect, Greuze was the master of a new interpretation of genre subjects (praised by Diderot as the equal of history painting), and a superb portraitist. Despite not having had the lengthy academic training of so many of his peers, he was a superb draughtsman and, as well as a handful of full composition drawings, he produced some splendid figures and bold character studies in red chalk which are much sought after today.

His modest upbringing and training with a minor Lyon painter ill-prepared him for the sudden fame he would achieve at the Salon of 1755. The next two years, which he spent in Italy, proved invaluable however, and the decade following his return was the most productive of his career. His large scale genre paintings, which mimic the themes of Dutch painting of a century earlier, are nonetheless highly original in their approach, most notably for their moral conviction. Greuze’s ambition to be accepted as a painter of elevated history subjects, possibly fueled by the adulation he had enjoyed with his early genre subjects, almost derailed his career. The judgment of his peers was probably right, however, and we may be grateful he returned to the subjects to which his talents were best suited. As his style matured, his touch softened and we see a gradual blurring of forms that becomes particularly apparent in his late portraits of the revolutionary and directoire periods. Despite changing taste, which made his earlier paintings increasingly unfashionable, he remained a leading figure in the art establishment, being invited to become a member of the revolutionary Salon juries, and widely mourned upon his death. 

 

[1] Perhaps mis-identified; the description in the catalogue matches neither the unfinished Wallace Collection painting nor the Wallace Collection painting once called Sophie Arnould but now considered to be a portrait of an unknown lady.

[2] Collot made a considerable fortune and, after serving as quartermaster-general for the French army in Spain, was appointed by Louis XVIII Receiver-General of Finances of the mouth of the Rhone, then director of currency as well as other posts in the administration of government finances. In 1840 he began the construction of the splendid Hôtel Collot, designed by the architect Louis Visconti at 25 Quai Anatole France, now the home of the renowned Galerie Kugel.

[3]Jean Baptiste Greuze 1725-1805, Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, 1976, Selection and Catalogue by Edgar Munhall.

[4]Greuze – The rise and fall of an eighteenth century phenomenon, Anita Brookner, London, 1972.

[5] Written jointly with Irina Novesselskaya and Samuel Sachs.