was a French painter
, famous principally for his portrait
s. He was born at Tournus
in 1725, and died in 1805.
His earlier works were landscape and historical genre—he visited Italy in 1755 and turned his attention to the country there—, but it was his soft, intimate portraits that he put his finest work into and commanded his highest prices for. He was hugely popular in his own day and after, but now is but a little-known name.
Let me begin with two, Girl with Doves and Innocence. My sources are souvenir cards from the Wallace Collection, one of London's best-kept secrets, a gallery with some of our finest treasures from the past, quite discreetly hidden away so that the art-lover can come and look and sit, and look more, free of disturbance by the uncomprehending tourist. It's rather cluttered, a bit musty, in some ways; and in one room are these two Greuzes gazing serene and unblinking over the quiet visitors.
Perhaps more than two; I especially remember these two, and bought the cards. The Girl with Doves is beautiful beyond the reach of most paintings: of indeterminable age, fifteen perhaps, wide pink cheeks and dreamy grey eyes, a small firm young-adult mouth dropping open pensively, innocently, and a mass of red hair falling in curls around her shoulders. She is in the costume of the period, I suppose, but the loose folds of the white undergown look neo-classical and timeless; as does the fillet about her hair.
She is holding two doves. On her right, the viewer's left, is a wooden cage with another dove in it; on her lap she has a negligently placed basket of eggs. Her lower arms and elbows are bare, plump with childhood, and one rests on the bird-cage and is held up, not so much caressing the upraised wing of one dove as stilling it, resting there in unconscious confidence that she can bring its querulous beating to trust and tranquillity. Her lower hand cups the dove. It is still resisting but the viewer knows the girl's serenity is ineluctable.
It was painted in 1802; there's a receipt on the back. It cost 4000 livres, and was painted for a Mr Wilkinson. The other one I'm looking at to write this was sold for 100 200 francs in 1865, which sounds a lot; but art prices are invidious and devoid of meaning at any time.
Innocence, she's called. Another beautiful young girl with an escaping mass of golden-red hair, small mouth, large soft almond eyes—the same model, in fact, but already in these two I know his style, Greuze's style, know he loved the diaphanous, soft, pure, dream-like gaze, how each of his pictures will be "a picture of innocence" indeed: something you'd treasure if it was of a family member, someone you'd wish you knew if you didn't already, something that makes you smile softly yourself when you're looking at it and lodges in the mind as a comfort when you've left it behind.
She's holding a lamb, in the same only-half-touching hold as with the doves, relaxing its restlessness with the sweet radiance of her own tranquil state, rather than with the force of those bare arms. And they are very bare in this one. All her arm is bare, save a wisp of gauzy paint where her gown billows out behind her. Her shoulders and her throat are bare, and her breast very close to it. Her hair gusts behind her, perfectly untouched symmetrically around her face, but in a storm at her back. As if a halcyon emanation where she sits.
It was 1802, she was thirteen or seventeen, he was born in 1725, so he was seventy-seven. He dearly adored his model, I'm sure, and was past the time when he could do aught but look. But oh how that looking must have rattled him and swayed his brush.
"Is this really what they wore in Biblical times, M. Greuze?" she asked him in that piping voice.
"Eh? Yes. Yes. More or less," he answers reassuringly, fading into a mutter. "Something of that general kind. Biblical, allegorical, pastoral," he adds, naming names half at random. "You'll see it in Claude, and Rubens, and other..."
"They must have got very cold," she muses. The faintest hint of concern for the poor Biblical-pastoral people troubles her brow of peaches-and-cream.
"Well, hot climate, you know. And all that. In fact they... ahh... I wonder if you could..."
"What is it, M. Greuze? Am I not sitting right?"
"Oh, perfect, perfect. It's just they actually wore it a little, ah, lower, ah, than, than that."
"It must have been very hot in Biblical times!" she giggles. "Why, that's almost no clothes at all!"
"Yes. Very... very hot," he pants, in some little distress, taking out a handkerchief and mopping his fevered brow. "Oh my," he groans, as she lets the little wisp of cloth slip further down. He tries to focus on the canvas.