Jean Baptiste Greuze was born at Tournus on Aug. 21, 1725. His early life is undocumented, but he studied painting in Lyons and appeared in Paris around 1750. He entered the Royal Academy as a student and worked with Charles Joseph Natoire, a prominent decorative painter. During the 1760’s Greuze achieved a significant reputation with his sentimental paintings of peasants or lower-class people seen in humble surroundings and in the midst of theatrically emotional family situations; examples are The Village Bride (1761), The Father’s Curse (1765), and The Prodigal Son (1765).
In 1769 Greuze was admitted to the academy as a genre painter. Ambitious to become a member of the academy as a history painter, which was a higher rank, he was so angered by his admission as only a genre painter that he refused to show his paintings at the academy’s exhibitions (the Salons). However, by that time he was already famous and could afford to ignore the Salons.
The rising importance of the middle class, and of middle-class morality, also played a part in the success of Greuze’s cottage genre. His work seemed to preach the homely virtues of the simple life, a “return to nature,” and the honesty of unaffected emotion. The blatant melodrama of his preaching was not found offensive, and visitors to the Salons wept in front of his paintings. The intellectuals of the day were generally opposed to the rococo as a decadent style; rather paradoxically, Greuze’s most influential champion was Denis Diderot, one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, who hailed Greuze as “the painter of virtue, the rescuer of corrupted morality.” The fashion for simplicity and the “natural man” penetrated the highest circles, and engravings of Greuze’s work were popular with all classes of society.
In terms of style, Greuze has been linked to neoclassicism. The complexity of his compositions, however, and his interest in surface textures place him within the general stylistic pattern of his period. In his sensual paintings of girls (such as The Morning Prayer and The Milkmaid), with their veiled eroticism, pale colors, and soft tonality, his connection with the rococo is most evident. Some of Greuze’s best work is to be seen in his portraits (for example, Étienne Jeaurat), which are often sensitive and direct.Greuze survived the French Revolution but his fame did not. He died in Paris on March 21, 1805, in poverty and obscurity.