Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - Septimius Severus and Caracalla

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, 1769
(Musee du Louvre, Paris)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze came from Tournus, the son of a roof master who tried to thwart his son's artistic tendencies at an early age.  He received his early training in Lyons, then traveled onto Paris and enrolled at the Academie to continue his studies.   He is noted as having made a great fuss when he was given an unsatisfactory seat in life class.  Greuze then traveled onto Italy in the company of abbe Gaugenot which according to art historian Anita Brookner was wasted on him since he was too much under the influence of Flemish and Dutch models.1  

When Greuze first entered the Academie, he wanted to be a Genre painter, showing domestic scenes with popular connotations which was in the middle of the hierarchy of acceptable styles.  The hierarchy of Genres were as follows:  History painting; Portrait painting; Genre painting; Landscape; Still Life.  Although he wasn't an fully accepted academician yet, Greuze was sending his paintings to the Salon, the official exhibition of the Academie that informed the public of the quality of works produced by the academicians. The artists who were permitted into the Academie were supposed to submit a reception piece that was judged and accepted into the different levels of the academy.  Greuze who had been protected by influential people had not submitted his reception piece till 1769. 

The artist usually would have a sponsor to help, critique and guide him on his reception piece but Greuze arrogantly decided to do it by himself without any assistance artistically or financially.  Since he was financing the painting himself, it ended up being smaller than the usual size of the pieces admitted to the jury.  In his attempt to impress the jury Greuze picked an obscure story from antiquity that was based on speech and had no decipherable meaning without the words.  The story Greuze was trying to depict was the Roman emperor Septimius Severus reproaching his son Caracalla who had tried to kill him and telling him that all he would have to do if wanted to accomplish this would be to tell his guards.  As odd as the story was Greuze's unacceptable depiction of the protagonists provided the academicians with further ammunition to completely destroy it.  The limp arm of the Emperor pointing at his son was so out of character for a man in his position as well as Caracalla's strange expression of a boy who is being scolded that even though Greuze had done his studies of the anatomy in the nude as was the correct way for the academy, it still ended up being a failure.  He was still admitted into the academy but at the lower level of genre painter which he took as the biggest insult.  When he showed this painting at the Salon it was not appreciated by anyone there either.  Taking offense, Greuze decided not to exhibit at the Salon anymore and eventually died unnoticed and in poverty.  

1  Brookner, Anita. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze-I" The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd. Vol 98, No 638, May 1956 

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