Oil on canvas; 16 x 12 ½ in; 41 x 32 cm;
held in a 19th century Empire frame
Provenance: Blairquhan Castle, Scotland; Christie's, London 24 May 2007, lot 144; Private collection, England
Jean Baptiste Greuze was a French painter who rose to prominence after initial success at the Salon of 1755. While retaining the clear, bright colours and lighter attitude of eighteenth-century painting, Greuze introduced a Dutch-influenced realism into French genre painting and portraiture. Through vivid facial expressions and dramatic gestures, Greuze’s moralizing paintings exemplified the new idea that painting should relate to life. They captured the details of settings and costumes, “spoke to the heart,” educated viewers, and aimed to make them “virtuous.” His work was praised by Diderot as ‘morality in paint’. But such commentary was not enough in the long term and after the Académie Royale only accepted him to join their ranks as a genre painter, he realised he would never be considered seriously by the artistic establishment. With the swing of taste towards Neoclassicism his work went out of fashion and after the Revolution in 1789 he sank into obscurity. Today, his works are celebrated once more and fetch remarkable prices.
The portrait presented here is a version of Greuze’s painting in the Musée Fabre, Montpelier, France. It is a typical subject for the artist concentrating as it does on the sentimental nature of innocence. The composition follows the original closely, but not exclusively and intriguingly places the girl behind a stone ledge, a device seen in some 17th century portraits such as those by Sir Peter Lely or some of the Flemish painters of the period, but not in the original by Grueze. This suggests that the artist who undertook this “copy” was bringing to the composition an aspect they deemed necessary to enhance the feeling of realism. This makes it distinct and unusual in comparison with the other seven listed copies which have come on the art market in the last one hundred years, all of which are poorer in quality. It is possible therefore that this could be a work from Greuze’s studio and even possibly his daughter Anne-Geneviève who is known to have copied pictures by her father, and is certainly likely to have had the confidence to alter them; her body of work however is small and confused and therefore positive attribution in this respect is not possible.
This picture was probably purchased by Sir William Farrer in the 1880s, a great art collector whose pictures passed by family descent to the Hunter Blairs of Blairquhan. It formed part of the collection of Blairquhan Castle until sold in 2007.