Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Domestic Draftsman, A Man Out of Time

It sometimes seems as if Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) was born into the wrong century. In the company of his more illustrious 18th-century contemporaries-Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, even Chardin-Greuze is indeed something of an oddity. Whereas these revered masters tended to devote their art to an imagery of pleasure and romance, Greuze was much occupied with what were thought to be humbler subjects. Elaborate scenes of domestic strife were one of his specialties, as were other painful subjects drawn from contemporary life. He was, in effect, a premature realist in a period when the harsher realities of life tended to be shunned by the most ambitious artistic talents. Yet to the drama of ordinary, unheroic human misfortunes, Greuze brought both a formidable talent and a profound empathy. What it sometimes cost him to dwell on his melancholy vein of human experience can be measured by the fact that Greuze remains, even today, the least-celebrated major artist of his period. Exhibitions of his work are in fact a rarity, and this is one of the reasons why the exhibition called Greuze the Draftsman , which Edgar Munhall has organized at the Frick Collection, is an event.

This is the first show ever to be devoted to Greuze’s drawings, and Mr. Munhall’s book-length catalog of the exhibition, with its 95 illustrations of the artist’s work on paper, is also the first publication of its kind. Over the years there have, of course, been many attempts to place Greuze’s work in the art of his period. One of the best can be found in the opening paragraphs of the chapter on Greuze in Edmund and Jules de Goncourt’s French Eighteenth-Century Painting (circa 1856-75). Here is the passage in its entirety: “That great record of corruption, Les Liaisons Dangereuses , contains one unexpected page, a page that contrasts with all that preceded and follow it. It is the scene in which Valmont sets out to save from seizure by the tax collector the furniture of a poor village family unable to pay the poll-tax. The collector counts his 56 livres . Rescued from destitution, the entire family, numbering five people, weep for joy and gratitude; tears flow, joyous tears that illuminate with happiness the face of its oldest member. The villagers throng around the group, murmuring their benedictions; and one of them, a young peasant, leading by the hand his wife and two children, overwhelms Valmont with their grateful adoration, making them kneel at his feet as if he were the personification of human Providence or the image of God. This unlooked-for passage in Laclos’s book is like the appearance of Greuze in the eighteenth century.”

Greuze was extraordinarily lucky in one respect, however: From the outset, he won the admiration of knowledgeable critics and connoisseurs. Before the Goncourt brothers in the 19th century, Greuze’s own contemporary, Denis Diderot, singled out the artist’s drawings for special praise; in his review of the Salon of 1769, Diderot declared of the drawings, “that’s where Greuze truly shows himself to be a man of genius.”

We’ve had to wait a very long time-nearly two and a half centuries-for this first exhibition of Greuze’s drawings. Yet in this matter, too, Greuze has been lucky enough in this country to attract the interest of a devoted connoisseur. Mr. Munhall, now curator emeritus at the Frick Collection, served as curator of the Frick from 1965 to 1999. In 1959, he completed his Ph.D. dissertation, Jean-Baptiste Greuze: An Artist and His Critics , at Yale University. In 1976, he organized the first exhibition ever devoted to Greuze, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725-1805 , for the Wadsworth Atheneum, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon; his catalog of that exhibition remains a standard work on the artist. And in 1996, he organized another exhibition, Greuze, a Portraitist for the 90’s , at the Frick.

For Greuze the Draftsman , Mr. Munhall has assembled some 70 works on paper at the Frick, some never before seen in this country. Of special interest are the 11 drawings on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which has a sizable collection of the artist’s works on paper. Some of the most powerful drawings in the show are described as “Studies in Expression.” These are drawings of individual faces and heads that are at once clearly observed character studies and subtle evocations of complex emotion. Doubtless, it was drawings of this type that Diderot had in mind when he observed, “If [Greuze] meets a head that strikes him, he would willingly fall on his knees before the bearer of that head to attract him to the studio. He is constantly on the lookout in the streets, in churches, in markets, at the theater, on promenades, in public gatherings. When he’s thinking about a subject, he is obsessed with it,” and so on. And in the rendering of the têtes d’expression , as they are called, Greuze is indeed an artist obsessed with his subjects, and with the sometimes extreme emotions they harbor.

The more elaborately orchestrated domestic scenes, which at times make ample use of the têtes d’expression as preliminary studies, are ambitious moral allegories that sometimes verge on satire and sometimes give us a preview of later styles of domestic melodrama. From The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son and The Father’s Curse: The Punished Son to The Angry Wife , we are given a very clear understanding that there wasn’t much about the trials of domestic strife that Greuze hadn’t experienced in his own marriage, which was by all accounts fairly wretched. As one of Greuze’s contemporaries, Lebrun, wrote of him: “To paint a man in his private life is the great talent of M. Greuze.” And as another said: “Greuze created a genre of painting unknown in France before him, that of private life. [He] wanted, in painting different events of human life, to inspire a love of goodness, and a hatred of vice.” Insofar as human nature hasn’t changed much since Greuze’s day, these scenes of domestic conflict have lost none of their sting.

Greuze the Draftsman remains on view at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, through Aug. 4, and then will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (Sept. 10 to Dec. 1, 2002).