L'affaire Greuze and the sublime of history painting.

Author:Kahng, Eik
Position:Jean-Baptiste Greuze, France - Critical Essay

In the Salon of 1765 the painting that caused the greatest stir was Jean-Honore Fragonard's highly praised morceau d'agrement (acceptance piece), Coresus and Callirhoe (Fig. 1). (1) This large-scale machine (canvas) depicts the climax of the story, originally related by Pausanias in his guide to Greece, where the high priest of the Calydonians, Coresus, plunges a knife into his chest, thereby sacrificing himself in place of the object of his unrequited love, Callirhoe. As it turns out, such ambitious history painting would prove to be the exception rather than the norm in Fragonard's oeuvre, despite the general acclaim expressed by academicians and critics alike on its unveiling. Instead, Fragonard's fame would be made through a wide variety of often unclassifiable subjects (from his portraits de fantaisie to piquant if unbelievable depictions of "peasant" life and explicitly erotic boudoir scenes), all executed with the bravura brushwork for which he was deeply admired by his contemporaries.


Not surprisingly, in 1765 the highly dramatic Coresus and Callirhoe appealed in particular to the philosophe and art critic Denis Diderot. In a fictive "conversation" with Friedrich Melchior Grimm, penned as his regular review of the Salon for the exclusive periodical the Correspondance Litteraire, Diderot employed a cunning literary device to both verbalize and critique what he had seen. Rather than simply reviewing the painting in conventional fashion through a summary of its overall effect, particularized by standard detailing of any obvious technical inadequacies, the critic chose to pay Fragonard his supreme compliment. He offered his own literary improvisation on the painting's subject matter to capture both its emotional and visual effects, maintaining all the while the thinly disguised conceit of recounting to Grimm an unusually vivid dream.


Diderot describes returning home, exhausted by his efforts, after having spent an arduous morning examining the works on display at the Louvre in his capacity as designated art critic. In his feigned conversation with Grimm, Diderot comments casually that Fragonard's sensational canvas had already been removed by the time his own curiosity was finally piqued. While drowsing at his desk that evening over what one imagines to be a well-worn copy of Plato's Dialogues, he falls into a strange dream for which the famous parable of the cave provides the indifferent material. In the dream, he is one of the captives in the cave, head and hands clamped in position, forced to spectate as all manner of phantom images pass before him. Coincidentally, the drama he witnesses is precisely the story of Coresus and Callirhoe, and, as Diderot has Grimm so innocently remark, the imagery he describes in his dream reproduces exactly the look and feel of Fragonard's painting.

Much has already been said about this familiar passage from Diderot's Salon of 1765. (2) The literary ruse employed here is typical of Diderot's mature criticism and recurs sporadically in his subsequent Salon commentary whenever he wanted to register the imaginative transport a successful painting has caused him to experience. As Michael Fried has noted, this and other instances of even more dizzying layers of fiction in Diderot's Salons affirm the critic's pronounced attraction to paintings that facilitate the viewer's "absorption" into the scene represented. This passage offers as well the interpretative density suggested by the choice of allegorizing both Fragonard's painting and Diderot's task as critic through the already allegorical parable of Plato's cave. I will return to this last issue in the closing section of my essay. First, I want to consider the narrower question of Diderot's apparent enthusiasm for Fragonard's last serious attempt at the highest category of history painting with the benefit of hindsight. Specifically, I want to leap ahead in time to the Salon of 1769 and the debacle of another history painting that suffered as much critical scorn as Fragonard's enjoyed praise: Jean-Baptiste Greuze's Septimius Severus Reproaching His Son Caracalla .... (3) (Fig. 2). (4)

As I will argue, both of these innovative canvases were inspired in part by a new model of psychological identification that had migrated somewhat uneasily into the painter's realm from an originally dramatic conception of the sublime. The practical and theoretical consequences of this new, affective, and experientially based ideal for ambitious painting would lead to a blurring of the boundaries that had previously distinguished history painter from genre painter and, ultimately, a fatal undermining of the traditional hierarchy of genres altogether. (5) This erosion of the hierarchy of genres would culminate in such masterpieces as Jacques-Louis David's Belisarius Begging. But it is also this phenomenon that accounts for Fragonard's ingenious Coresus and Callirhoe and Greuze's unfortunate Septimius. The complex interrelation among these three important paintings as registered in the criticism of Diderot maps out a fundamental transition long in the making, moving away from classical norms for painting as intellectualized object and toward a notion of painting as locus for the activation of fictional empathy. To situate this shift, I will use Greuze's much anticipated but finally maligned reception piece to the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture as the pivot of my argument.

The story of Greuze's spectacular failure to be admitted to the Academie Royale as a history painter is well known. (6) Although admitted (agree) into the academy as a genre painter, Greuze had the audacity to submit a history painting as his long-awaited official reception piece, (7) thereby attempting to elevate his academic ranking from genre painter to the more highly esteemed category of history painter without the prior sanction of his senior colleagues. Much to Greuze's chagrin, they unanimously condemned the painting. They admitted him as a genre painter on the basis of his previous, popular, and critically acclaimed work in that category, infuriating the temperamental artist and leading him to cease exhibiting at the Salon altogether for the rest of the century.

The anecdotal longevity of the juicy tale of Greuze's humiliation can in large part be chalked up to Diderot's Salon of 1769. In a frequently cited passage, Diderot introduces Greuze's exhibited works through a detailed reporting of events leading up to the artist's fall from grace. His matter-of-fact account of Greuze's rejection demonstrates just how unmoving he found the painting to be. Instead of plunging the reader into the painting through the kind of intricate literary deception lavished on Coresus and Callirhoe, Diderot opens with a terse synopsis of Greuze's choice of subject matter--the moment when the Roman emperor Septimius accuses his son Caracalla of having plotted patricide, declaring angrily, "If you want my death, order Papinian [colonel of the guards] to kill me with this sword." Diderot then narrates with dramatic aplomb the stiff exchange that took place between the academicians assembled to pronounce judgment and the outraged Greuze. Unusually, Diderot sides with academic sentiment against his former favorite, whom he claims to "love no longer," submitting a long list of flaws marring the artist's obvious Poussinesque pretension. (8)

Explanations for l'affaire Greuze (9) have centered mostly on the political and personal circumstances stacked against the arrogant young painter. Greuze's numerous skirmishes with Charles-Nicolas Cochin, among other influential academicians, had already prepared the way for a reluctance to indulge Greuze's "surprise invader" (10) tactics, despite the painter's obvious ability and popular appeal. Certainly, Greuze's previous work in genre painting did not give him the depth of preparation to master so suddenly the iconological repertoire and literary fluency necessary for high-level history painting. However, despite the validity of many of the technical objections to Greuze's ambitious composition (illegibility of subject matter, muddy coloration, faulty anatomy, ignoble facial features, to name a few), there remains something almost too insistent about the critical cant against the Septimius.

After all, as art historians are eager to concede, in many ways Greuze's much maligned canvas strongly anticipates David's pre-Revolutionary masterpieces. (11) Compare, for example, Greuze's Septimius to David's acclaimed version of the ever popular story of Belisarius, exhibited in the Salon of 1781 (Fig. 3). Both display a uniquely eighteenth-century hybridization of the sentimental accessibility by then associated with genre painting and the moral didacticism expected of history painting. Both attempt to evoke the feeling of antiquity through an idiom clearly indebted to Nicolas Poussin in choice of architectural motifs, muted palette, and linear composition. Echoes of Poussin also resound in the narrative economy of centralized gestures and facial expressions and in the relatively shallow, friezelike space in which the actors stage their tableaux. In this respect, both paintings can be seen as a direct response to the conviction, growing in strength since the upstart critic La Font de Saint-Yenne's 1747 blasting of the state of contemporary painting in France, that a generous dose of Poussin was the only antidote to the frivolous inclinations of recent contemporary patronage.

My aim is not to vindicate Greuze from the accusations leveled against him, both in the primary eighteenth-century criticism and later art historical recapitulation. Certainly, there is an undeniable awkwardness to Greuze's Septimius. Not least of its difficulties, as was reiterated ad nauseam in the contemporary criticism, resides in the resistance to pictorialization evident in the psychologically resonant but figurally...

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