Feeling a Draft

John Haber
in New York City

Jean-Baptiste Greuze: Drawings

What makes Old Master sketches so accessible? And what makes that familiar discovery always so surprising and so fresh?

Speaking of tired discoveries, I hate everything I just said, right down to the tired, male honorific Old Master. Yet Jean-Baptiste Greuze fits it to a T—and so does a wonderful exhibition of his works on paper. Jean-Baptiste Greuze's Head of a Woman (private collection, c. 1765)

An intimacy with the past

Start with a passing mention in survey texts, fitting and proper for the skilled academician. E. H. Gombrich's Story of Art omits him entirely. Add in highly moral scenes that put men and, to be sure, women in their place. Greuze painstakingly stages every canvas, as if people had no life apart from their role in society. Indeed, real men and women felt the same way. Before his sixty-fifth birthday came the French Revolution.

In every way, Greuze seems safely dead. You may not know that he ever existed. Now a show of his drawings brings him stunningly alive. But why?

For starters, the Frick Collection gives him every chance. Its seventy works span every major international collection. Edgar Munhall, curator emeritus at the museum, has worked for an exhibition like this for a long time, and it shows. As always at the Frick, wall labels nurture understanding, instead of taking over the show. They offer hints on techniques and story lines, letting one's renewed appreciation do the cheerleading.

Greuze himself helps, too. He may not always know light and color enough to dazzle a modern eye in paint, but he is totally at ease with drawing. He goes over pen and ink with lively washes. He experiments with chalk and pastels.

With artistry like this, perhaps first—and often second or third—thoughts do look more modern. Or perhaps that cliché, too, deserves a fresh look.

Quite the converse, the intimacy and virtuosity of drawings lets one see more of what went into the past. In the case of Greuze, works on paper help one to put aside some of those modern assumptions long enough to re-imagine the Enlightenment. They hint at how a stern, troubled century led despite it all to Romanticism and Revolution.

Half and half

Greuze can hardly occupy a less-familiar niche in European art history. His work spans roughly the second half of the eighteenth century, falling out of fashion just as at least one modern drawing collection got going. The Baroque had firmly played itself out in the first half, from the extravagant illusions of Italian church ceilings or Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the rigor of French Classicism to the firm but fleeting still lifes of J.-B.-S. Chardin. Jean Antoine Watteau had died young, four years before Greuze was even born, after introducing the equally fugitive pleasures of Watteau's pastoral elegies and Watteau's soldiers. By 1750, the year Greuze arrived in Paris, François Boucher had fluffed up the Rococo for decades.

The younger man soon learned this audience all too well. He made his living off portraits of the aristocracy, like Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and others. He made his fame preaching the virtues of conformity. His celebrated genre scenes teach the middle class how to behave. Children rush to their gentle, smiling mother. Their father disowns an ungrateful son, who suffers accordingly.

Before the end of the century, the Revolution had made much of this irrelevant—and had killed more than a few of its patrons. Jacques Louis David made his own revolution in art by re-educating the public accordingly. Did Boucher's aristocratic lovers float on swings through lush gardens? David's Socrates goes to his death in bare, stone surroundings. His plain toga and firm anatomy point to the earth. His simple gesture points up, to an unflinching future.

Greuze himself fell out of favor, even while artists in "lesser" genres somehow survived. In his own turn to classical history, exactly twenty years before the Revolution, the emperor scorns a son's assassination attempt. Now the sons had risen in triumph. Greuze knew keen disappointments throughout his career. He entered the Academy, but only as a genre painter. Now, nearing the end of his life, he had nothing to offer but "my talent and my courage."

By skipping Greuze's half century altogether, one makes the contrast that much stronger. One makes the revolution in art and society that much more irreversible. Yet, of course, things never go in straight lines. The empire returned, and David or his pupil Anne-Louis Girodet was there to cheer along. With J. A. D. Ingres, portraits of the aristocracy look more dazzling than ever.

Just as important, even revolutions begin before anyone notices. The explosion of the Baroque has roots in a new naturalism of the late 1500s. The early Renaissance took pride in looking back to Giotto. By rediscovering Greuze, one similarly uncovers a transition between centuries. And his drawings make the discovery a lot more fun.

Improvisation and control

Not unlike Jean Honoré Fragonard, Greuze had his heart in the past, but his eye looked to the future. In the Baroque's glory years, a time of Jan Vermeer's Delft, genre scenes covered a range of society, from card sharps to taverns. Now the Revolution was to elevate the rising middle class, but Greuze got there first. He sticks to the inner life of the family, and he crowds it with individuals. Women and children get at last to act their parts. Speaking of art for the middle class, so do dogs, and I do not mean playing poker.

David's Socrates stands for a hallmark of Neoclassicism. He makes human conduct into tragic theater. The doomed philosopher plays right to the audience, but like a traditional actor, he never acknowledges it. He is absorbed in his action and in the values that he embodies. Greuze may seem more than sentimental, to the point of downright comic. He does not dwell on scenes of a literal theater, unlike an Enlightenment draftsman, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. Yet his moral theater led the way.

Drawing brings out both trends—domestic realism and theater. Up close, one remembers the individuality of every gesture, like the sharp angle of a beggar leaning on his stick. On paper, too, Greuze composed each large pageant person by person.

Study upon study, he takes forever on a single painting. In part, he cannot help playing the control freak. He will not let go to end. He wants prints after his work to follow every tonal variation precisely as he sees it. He does not seem to care that a print will reverse his design, but it must get people right.

In no small part, too, he keeps going because he loves to improvise. One sees it when he adjusts the tilt of a head, without concern that it no longer quite goes with the neck. A woman's body has the awkward look of breasts grafted onto a male nude. Greuze could have been working within the prudery of the day, with no nude model beyond his wife. Or he may just have changed his mind in the flurry of his imagination.

Greuze loves swarms of individuals. In his final compositions, their bodies and gestures connect in a mad rush across the canvas. They run to their mother or cower from their father. He often pairs scenes—the strict father and the doting mother, the wayward son and his suffering. It advances the moral theater, but it also pairs movements to left and to right. And it supplies small variations on pretty much a single, evolving composition, as if each dog had to find its own place in the theater of real life.

Enlightenment and struggle

In all this, one remembers first the faces. A female head, probably his wife's, falls back in a swirl of loose hair and shadows. Her frank sexuality comes well before art and society allowed women their own expression of pleasure. (Jean Honoré Fragonard, Greuze's contemporary and a kind of successor to Boucher, also allows some flirting when he depicts his wife—but with fashionable clothes and a canny smile.) The ungrateful son, vividly drawn, may deserve everything he gets. Greuze helps one identify, though, with every nuance of his pain.

In describing this, Greuze plays around with pretty much every medium he had available. He likes to start with an outline, then work against it. Cross-hatching may start as shadow before it veers off into line. Scraping with the back of the pencil creates the highlight of an eye. He is most at home, though, in the sweep of red chalk. Its softness makes one want to touch the paper, and it makes that woman's sexuality almost palpable.

Today one looks at faces for sheer emotion—something arbitrary and individual, inner and all but entirely unconscious. Greuze charts instead what his century called sentiment—the full variety of human types, as exhibited in overt behavior and reflecting conscious choices. For the Enlightenment, reason alone makes sense of conduct, its ethical significance, and its personal consequences. Denis Diderot, the Enlightenment philosopher and himself a teller of strange tales, championed Greuze for "sensibility and high principles."

Sure, Greuze's morality looks simple now—especially before one starts looking. Thanks to these drawings, though, one learns that his system had more to it than the design of Hallmark cards. It sees people not as cogs in a moral machine, but as struggling elements of humanity. No wonder a philosophy born in a quieter age helped empower revolution everywhere.

Sadly, as Greuze's career progresses, one sees more of the struggle. His limited powers come nowhere near the joy, humor, irony, or tragedy of a Rembrandt. Yet much like Rembrandt, he starts with the confidence of a man sure of himself, and his art grows increasingly pessimistic. Families descend into bitter war. The love contained in that woman's head comes to seem a thing of the past.

Greuze had plenty of reasons to lose confidence. His marriage fell apart. His aspiration to the professional stature of a history painter failed. The Revolution left him behind. Ironically, a sense of failure draws his art yet closer to the future. Struggling humanity had already erupted.

Realism and theater

If Greuze seems torn between the aristocracy and the Enlightenment, between past and present, his progressive side has conflicts of its own. Think again of the two trends that link him to the future—in the directions of greater realism and sentimental theater. Traditionally, art history has seen David as bringing painting back to earth, as humanizing both nature and history. One can trace a line through John Constable's cloud studies all the way to Modernism. This show places Greuze at the head of that line. "Had he lived a hundred years later," Munhall writes, "he would have been called a realist; had he lived two hundred years later, he would have been a great filmmaker."

In the 1970s, Michael Fried, too, gave Greuze pride of place. At the same time, however, he challenged the realist's entire history. With Absorption and Theatricality, he outlined another set of connections. Here Greuze belongs to art that ignores the beholder, as if it took place on a stage. Fried now saw Modernism not as the culmination, but as a decisive break. Starting with Edouard Manet and a whole new canon, it confronts viewers, rubbing their nose in their own startled reactions.

Curiously enough, both theories have a fondness for Greuze, and both see Modernism as somehow more real than anything that he could offer. In different ways, both theories forget the Enlightenment's most modern idea of all—that a description of reality takes artifice. In one late drawing, arms thrown apart express deep feeling. Yes, I thought of theater, perhaps Al Jolson on bended knee. But I also felt a stunning naturalism, compared to a similar gesture right upstairs at the Frick. In a Boucher wall decoration, a character's rigid arms, like handles of some sort, make it look like her head is coming unscrewed.

Realism and theatricality—both theories forget the cost that Greuze and his actors pay for their struggle. When he leaves families in despair, without a happy ending, he leaves the world of fables behind, and he undermines the premise of his own dramas. As he contrasts his scenes over several panels, he dares a viewer to burst through the absorption, to step in, and to stop the action. As he embraces the son's self-inflicted suffering, sentiment nearly gives way to emotion after all. In Greuze's moral theater, Romanticism is waiting in the wings. But then, Enlightenment ideals, too, inspired a revolution that left them writhing in the dust.

Critics have been hard on Modernism for never letting go of those ideals. But were they ideals of individualism or responsibility, of realism or theater? Do they stand for old hierarchies of gender and class or inspire a revolution? Do they leave individuality itself as self-expression or as part of the pageantry on stage? Those unresolved tensions keep making art that much truer to experience—and that much more of a fiction.

Modernism represents a complex convergence. Where the Baroque loved long diagonals, Greuze has that mad rush from left to right and back. As a proponent of realism would argue, it keeps the focus on character. As Fried might insist, it keeps the action on a proscenium stage set. Yet it reminds me, too, of what modernists used to call "flatness."

Leveling the field

So return to drawings and what makes them so pleasurable. Of course, to keep some perspective, drawings by obscure artists do not exactly outsell museum blockbusters. I, too, pass through that corridor at the Met with barely a notice. I take comfort in the privacy of the Morgan Library, free from crowds. I had to wait in line at the Frick, but then again it had just opened. The guard had barely begun to deal with us early risers.

Still, the cliché lingers. One thinks of drawings as leveling distinctions between past and present. Artists from the past, one imagines, at least since Leonardo da Vinci, for once let themselves go. In a study of just a face or a hand, they have to look directly at life. They get to express emotions—the model's or their own—without an overlay of myth.

In other words, they look modern. As everyone knows, Modernism begins with Manet and the accusation that he refused to finish his paintings. It discards themes from religion and history, in favor of urban realism or stark personal expression. It exchanges period dress for the sexuality of a naked body, a cross-dresser, or a rare flower. In "process art" or "action painting," performance or video, it plays out in real time. No wonder drawings and prints these days can often seem like afterthoughts, except where graffiti art or Jasper Johns in his meditations and Regrets incorporate them right into painting.

Perhaps. I may believe all this myself. Only I wonder, because the story looks a little too comforting. It really does level art and reality. It assures one that drawings always look about the same. It pretends that real life—physical and emotional—sits out there, waiting to the observed.

If anything, art history shouts exactly the opposite. The comfort of drawings reminds me that it takes time and words to get at old paintings. If painters used to describe things strangely, Modernism and after make reality stranger yet. Confusion at the past, shock at the present—they can mean that one is not used to looking at what was always there. Or they can mean that looking takes unlearning old narratives and finding new ones. It can mean that art has a hand in creating a world.

When I linger over a drawing, I can see a world coming to life. If I give myself a chance, instead of leveling differences, I can experience them. Instead of dismissing Greuze for his moral tales, I can see half-forgotten stories—of simple pleasures and unending woe—as more complex than I ever imagined. I can take pleasure in the multiple perspectives of art history, Modernism, and Postmodernism, too, as acts of remembering.

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"Greuze the Draftsman" ran at The Frick Collection through August 4, 2002. At its subsequent stop, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the show again holds seventy works on paper, but the exact selection changes. The catalog displays all ninety-five works from both stops.


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