French painter Jean Baptiste Greuze was born on August 21, 1725 in the Burgundy region of France. Although his father opposed his artistic ambitions, he received both training and encouragement from an artist from Lyon named either Grandon or Grondom. When the older artist moved to Paris, Greuze went along.
Initially, his efforts at the Royal Academy met with little success; in fact, his teachers flat-out accused him of passing off someone else’s work as his own. Eventually, however, the Academy put their seal of approval on him, acknowledging that he really was as good as he seemed to be. His portraits of some of the most important people of the day, including young Mozart and Benjamin Franklin, certainly demonstrate great talent.
Greuze appears to have had a rather difficult temperament, and was often in conflict with the Academy. For instance, the Academy controlled the right to name an artist’s official genre. If they said you were a portrait painter, you wouldn’t get prestigious commissions to create allegorical paintings representing important event in mythology. The Academy felt that Greuze’s gifts lay in genre painting – little scenes of domestic life, like the village wedding, above. Greuze had a fit and refused to exhibit with the Academy again until 1804, when the Revolution had opened the right to exhibit to everyone.
But by this point, Greuze was a has-been. He had blown through a considerable inheritance with high living. At the end of his life, he had to seek out commissions for the fee, but he lacked the strength to complete them with distinction. In addition to his earlier paintings, his greatest contributions may be his students. Greuze had a school that welcomed female artists, among them his own daughter, Anne-Geneviève, and Constance Mayer. When I was researching 18th Century women painters a few years ago for a course, I learned that many later paintings attributed to Greuze were probably actually completed by his daughter. Certainly his style influenced his students enormously. He must have been a kind teacher even though he was such a difficult person. When he died on March 4, 1805, Mayer placed a bouquet on his coffin and the stems were wrapped in a slip of paper on which was written, “These flowers offered by the most grateful of his students are emblems of his glory.” Not a bad epitaph.
Thinking of this note from Mayer, I looked up the word “glory” and saw that the English phrase “a blaze of glory” is translated en beauté, which literally means “in beauty.” I like that idea – to finish his days en beauté would indeed be more appropriate for an artist like Greuze than to end in poverty and the shadow of his former glory.