chardin and greuze: influences & variances

academic writing

Throughout the 18th Century, two of the most influential artists in France were Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Both artists worked throughout the rococo, or “Late Baroque,” period, but identified themselves as “anti- Rococo.” Each artist also primarily focused on different subject matters. Chardin is known for his still-life works, but also for portraiture of everyday citizens, whereas Greuze directed his attention more exclusively towards portraiture of both upper and lower classes. This is particularly evident in the works Prayer Before Meal (1740, Chardin), The Laundress (1735, Chardin), The Village Bride (1761, Greuze), and The Laundress (1761, Greuze). Through considering these four paintings, it becomes evident that Greuze was influenced by the work of Chardin as he produced art with more theatrics and expression.

First, in order to understand the works of Chardin to Greuze, it is essential that the term “anti-Rococo” be clarified. Typical rococo style paintings depicted lovers, landscapes, and dynamic figures that boasted even more grace than Baroque figures. The rococo style was also distinguished by its use of soft colors and curving

lines. Rococo scenes often depict popular leisure activities and exude youth, entertainment, and sometimes eroticism. The “anti-Rococo” style “rejected the sensual, abundant, and worldly.”1 As a result, the style excluded historical subjects as well as aristocratic portraits, which were staples of baroque and rococo art.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was born in Paris, France in 1699 and lived there throughout his life and career. As a result, he was mostly exposed to other French artists, but also drew artistic inspiration from the Netherlands. Johannes Vermeer was a strong influence on Chardin in terms of genre scenes and interior spaces. Dissimilarly from Vermeer, Chardin does not utilize daylight or obscure objects in the foreground, as Vermeer often does.2 Despite working throughout the rococo era, Chardin’s depictions of still life, everyday activities and middle-class families were classified as “anti-Rococo.” Chardin is still considered one the greatest masters of still life painting. His still life paintings often included every day objects found in a typical kitchen and common food, strategically composed against a neutral background. Unlike typical baroque or rococo paintings, Chardin’s still life art is without excessive ornament and does not radiate emotion or drama.

Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1663 (LEFT)

Chardin, The Attentive Nurse 1783 (RIGHT)

Additionally, Chardin frequently created genre paintings, depicting maids, children, and domestic activities. The genre paintings were extremely popular among the bourgeoisie and aristocrats, as they were “charming in their naïve simplicity, and delighted the public novelty and tender sentiment.”3 The expressions on most figures are difficult to read or only show slight emotion. As a result, the focus of the paintings is more on the activity or action shown rather than the drama and emotion behind it. The models represented in the genre paintings have mannerist features, such as elongated proportions, with fabric obscuring where parts of the bodies begin and end. Unlike mannerism, Chardin utilizes a clear perspective with a focused composition, and the models are often presented in stiff poses rather 

Greuze, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla 1769

The differences in genre painting between Chardin and Greuze and Chardin’s influence on Grueze is particularly evident in the following painting comparisons: Prayer Before Meal (1740, Chardin) versus The Village Bride (1761, Greuze) and The Laundress (1735, Chardin) versus The Laundress (1761, Greuze). Chardin’s Prayer Before Meal (1740) is one of Chardin’s earlier genre paintings. The scene shows a woman teaching children to recite a prayer before eating a meal. The activity is simple, domestic, and portrays every day life. The overall composition is round; the central object, the table, the people surrounding, and all smaller objects positioned around the room are also round, creating a cohesive balance. The expressions on the figures’ faces are solemn and slightly hard to read, with soft lines outlining each person. Greuze’s The Village Bride (1761) is a genre painting depicting a simple wedding among the middle class. In the scene, each individual is portrayed with an intense expression reacting to the wedding; each expression is different and unique from any other face in the painting. Each figure is outlined more dramatically than Chardin’s soft, almost painterly lines, separating each figure from each other and standing out from the architecturally detailed background. Rather than set in shadow, like Chardin’s Prayer Before Meal, Greuze paints an unseen light source, highlighting the central focus of the scene. The composition is similar to Chardin in the way that the figures are placed in an arc, or circle, and that they are all reacting or in direct communication with the central focus. Greuze’s depiction of The Village Bride is as if he utilized the composition and storytelling of Chardin’s Prayer Before Meal, but enhanced it with theatrics, color, and a stronger composition.

than being highly stylized. Additionally, Chardin’s use of color and shadow were often praised. Notably, philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot observed that “this magic defies understanding. It is thick layers of color applied one on top of the other. ...At other times, you could say it is vapour that has been breathed onto the canvas.”4 Rather than objects and figures creating black shadows, Chardin frequently used reflecting colors from objects or fabric to create shadows on surfaces. In genre paintings, his palette was muted and neutral, but balanced, not putting extreme emphasis on any one object.

A contemporary of Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Greuze was born in Tournus, France in 1725. Unlike Chardin, Greuze studied under a portrait artist and began creating genre paintings early on in his career. In his thirties, Greuze left for Italy and was exposed to allegorical and historical artwork, although, when he returned to France, his acquaintance with Italian art did not seem to have an impact on his genre paintings.5 Compared to Chardin, the scenes Greuze produced have more expression and action within them. The paintings often tell a full story or imply events yet to come, with dramatic gestures and theatrical expressions. The compositions of each painting are structured as if the figures are arranged to tell a cohesive story but also project movement at the same time; “there is movement and vigor...they show an astonishing abundance of life.”6 Later in his life, in an attempt to gain admission to The Academy as a historical painter, he submitted Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla. However, his admission was “unanimously condemned,” unless he were to join as a genre painter, which would classify him in a far less esteemed genre of painting during the rococo era.7

Chardin, Prayer Before Meal 1740

Greuze, The Village Bride 1761

Furthermore, both Chardin and Greuze paint a scene of a woman tending to the wash. Chardin’s The Laundress (1735) presents an older woman in an interior room washing clothing in a large bucket, while another woman in the background begins hanging fabric to dry. In focus with the woman washing is a small boy blowing soap bubbles, and to the right of him, a cat on the ground. The increase in heights from right to left (the cat, the boy, the bucket, the woman), create an interesting composition, enabling the viewer’s eyes to sweep over the painting from right to left until focusing on the laundress. The proportions of the figures have mannerist qualities; the woman has elongated legs that seem to have no beginning under her thick layers of clothing, while her arms are very large for her body, reaching into the bucket. The boy in a chair next to her has correct bodily proportions, except for his head, which looks almost larger than the woman’s. The expressions on both faces are calm, as nothing is overtly theatrical to react to in the scene.

Approximately thirty years later, Greuze depicts The Laundress in quite a different way, but takes queues from Chardin’s painting. The laundress Greuze depicts is much younger than in Chardin’s painting, as Greuze’s specialty was painting younger women. Instead of being a passive viewer, it’s as if the audience is in the scene, as the young woman is staring at us. As a result, there is a slight eroticism in the scene, not depicted in Chardin’s The Laundress. In Reading the Greuze Girl: The Daughter’s Seduction, Emma Barker states, “Greuze introduces an element of open-endedness that encourages spectators to play an active role in the construction of the painting’s meaning by offering their own conjectures as to the significance of the scene.”8


Greuze’s painting is almost like a “zoomed-in” portrayal of Chardin’s; the architectural space surrounding the figure is not as defined as in Chardin’s, and the young woman of focus is the singular subject of the scene. Since the scene is so close, there is no way to tell if there are other figures influencing the scene. Again, like Chardin, the hierarchy of heights enabled the viewer to quickly sweep over the composition. In Greuze’s arrangement, the hierarchy goes from the left to the right (a kettle/the water dish, then the young woman, then the cabinet with objects on top of it), with the figure in the center rather than off to the side. The woman is in a very similar position to Chardin’s figure while leaning over to do the wash, but Greuze illustrates the proportions more true to life than Chardin does. Additionally, unlike Chardin, the entire the scene is evenly lit. Since the woman is of central focus and is looking at the viewer, there is no need to cast a dramatic shadow to create the focus, as Chardin does in his laundress scene.

Chardin, The Laundress 1735

Greuze, The Laundress 1761

Overall, Chardin and Greuze both draw heavy influence from Dutch painters, but Chardin’s influence on Greuze is evident, although they are near contemporaries to each other. General similarities include genre scenes depicting every day life, usually featuring women, use of light and shadow to create a focus when there are multiple figures, and extremely similar compositional styles, whether it is circular or arcing, or hierarchal heights. Typical differences include the proportions of figures (Chardin utilizes a slightly mannerist approach), facial expressions (Greuze often depicts more theatrical or intense expressions), bodily language and gesticulation (Chardin is usually more stiff, while Greuze is more dynamic), and overall, storytelling; Greuze usually has a more overt moral meaning painted into the details of each scene. While it may seem that Greuze is very dissimilar based on these observations, the conclusion is closer to the theory that Greuze utilized ideas from Chardin, but improved on them, moving even closer to realism in a theatrical way.

​1. Thomas Crowe, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-century Paris (Yale University Press, 1985), 130- 133.
2. Herbert Furst, Chardin (London, Methuen & co., ltd, 1911), Chardin’s Life and Character.
3. Masters In Art: French School. Bastien-lepage Through Ingres (Bates & Guild, 1905), Chardin, 26.

4. Phyllis Tuchman, The Quiet Mastery of Jean-Simeon Chardin (Smithsonian, June 2000).
5. Masters In Art: French School. Bastien-lepage Through Ingres (Bates & Guild, 1905), Greuze, 66.

6. Masters In Art: French School. Bastien-lepage Through Ingres (Bates & Guild, 1905), Greuze, 72.

7. Eik Kahng, L'Affaire Greuze and the Sublime of History Painting (College Art Association, 2004), Vol. 86, No. 1, pp. 96-113.

8. Emma Barker, Reading the Greuze Girl: The Daughter’s Seduction (The Regents of the University of California 2012), 86–119.

BIBLIOGRAPHY -

 

"Chardin, p. 26 and Greuze, p. 66-72." Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs. Boston, MA: Bates & Guild, 1905. N. pag. Print.

Barker, Emma (2012). Reading the Greuze Girl: the daughter’s seduction. Representations, 117 pp. 86–119.

Crow, Thomas E. Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-century Paris. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985. 130-33. Print.

Furst, Herbert. "Chardin's Life and Character." Chardin. London: Methuen, 1911. N. pag. Print.

Kahng, Eik. L'Affaire Greuze and the Sublime of History Painting. 1st ed. Vol. 86. N.p.: College Art Association, n.d. 96-113. Print. The Art Bulletin.

Tuchman, Phyllis. "The Quiet Mastery of Jean-Simeon Chardin." (n.d.): n. pag. Smithsonian, June 2000. Web.