The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

The Broken Jug by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1771)

This is my second painting featuring the artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the first being on June 28th.  However today’s painting is very different in comparison to my first offering.

Greuze was born in Tournus, a Burgundian town on the banks of the River Saône in 1725, the sixth of nine children.  He came from a prosperous middle-class background and studied painting in Lyon in the late 1740’s under the successful portrait painter, Charles Grandon.   At the age of twenty-five, Greuze moved to Paris where he entered the Royal Academy as a student.  During this period he developed a style of painting which was described as Sentimental art or Sentimentality.     I believe we could define sentimentality as an emotional disposition that idealizes its object for the sake of emotional gratification and that it is inherently corrupt because it is grounded in cognitive and moral error. Sentimental art can thus be defined as art that, whether or not by design, evokes a sentimental response.

Greuze was accepted as an Associate member of the Academy after he submitted three of his paintings A Father Reading the Bible to His Family, the Blindman Deceived and The Sleeping Schoolboy.    These three works were about life amongst working class folk and were moralising pictorial stories and, in some ways, are reminiscent of the works by William Hogarth some two decades earlier.  It was Hogarth’s genre of art that depicted scenes from the lives of ordinary citizens and which were calculated to teach a moral lesson.

Greuze was pleased to have achieved admission to the prestigious Academy but he wanted more.  He wanted to be recognised as a historical painter.  From the 17th century, Art Academies of Europe had formalised a hierarchy of figurative art and the French Académie royale de peinture et de sculpturehad a central role in this listing.  According to them this was the hierarchical order, with the most prestigious at the top:

History Painting

(including narrative religious mythological and allegorical subjects)

Portrait Painting

Genre painting

 or scenes of everyday life

Landscape

Animal painting

Still Life

 

In 1789 he put forward his work, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla, as a history painting but it was rejected by the Academy as they considered him to be a “mere genre painter”.    The Academy did not consider his works fell into the category of historical paintings and this rebuff so annoyed Greuze that he refused to submit any more of his works for the Academy’s exhibitions.  The fact that the Academy downgraded his works did not in any way affect their popularity with the public who couldn’t get enough of these “sentimental” paintings and the sale of his works continued strongly.  In fact, the sales of his works were so popular that the money kept pouring in and so Greuze had no more need to exhibit his works at the Academy.

During the late eighteenth century in France, Rococo art thrived and the likes of Fragonard, Watteau and Boucher had almost taken over the French art scene.  It was all the rage with its mythological and allegorical themes in pastoral settings and its elegant and sometimes sensuous depictions of aristocratic frivolity.  At the time, this brand of light-hearted, and now and again erotic works, were much in demand with wealthy patrons.  So in some ways the French art world received a shock when Greuze’s pompously moralising rural dramas on canvas countered the frivolity of the artificial world of Rococo art.

The majority of Greuze’s later works consisted of titillating paintings of young girls.  His paintings contained thinly disguised sexual suggestions under the surface appearance of over-sentimental innocence.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today entitled The Broken Jug is a classic example of this style of art.  In the picture we see a three-quarter length portrait of a young girl.  She has blue eyes, light hair, pink cheeks, very red lips, and her dress is white. She still exudes the innocence of childhood but we need to look closer at this portrait.   How old do you think she is?  Look closely at her facial expression.  What can you read into it?  Do you think she looks serious?  Do you think there is a slight look of alarm in her eyes?  Is there a look of sadness in her expression?  What has happened?

Look at the way she is dressed.  It looks as if it was a special dress for a special occasion, look at the flowers in her hair, maybe she has just returned from a party, but why are her dress and her appearance so dishevelled?  On her arm she carries a pitcher which is broken but she has not discarded it.  She clings lovingly to it.  It must have been a prized possession of hers and maybe she hopes to be able to remedy the break.  How did it break?  Was she running away from something and tripped, breaking the pitcher, which may explain her dishevelled appearance.  Maybe her worry is based on how she is going to explain away the breaking of the pitcher to her parents and pleading that it was a simple accident and beyond her control.  Is it as simple as this?

Let me suggest another possibility to this story.   I am not convinced this is all about a broken pitcher.  Let us consider an alternative theory.  Look at her dishevelled appearance.  Look at her silk scarf adorned with a rose which has lost some of its petals.  See how the scarf has been dragged down and is now no longer wrapped around her slender neck.  Look how the top of her dress has been pulled down exposing her left breast and nipple.  Look how she struggles to gather up flowers in the folds of her dress.  Has she been involved in a struggle with a lover and the tryst has got out of hand?   Is her beloved broken pitcher just an allegory and this is not about a broken jug at all but it is about her broken hymen and the loss of her virginity and the fear of telling her parents what has happened?

Could The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze be alluding to loss of virginity or am I reading something into this painting which does not exist?

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