Portrait of Jean Tupinier, 1797
(Jean-Baptiste Greuze)


Greuze often painted his portraits on panels at this late stage of his career, the smoothness and integrity of the surface allowed him to achieve finer effects of depth and transparency, particularly in the fleshtones. However, the schema of this portrait is slightly atypical of his late portraiture, which tends toward the austere, or even tense, particularly those of his male sitters. Greuze’s natural talent for capturing a subject’s character as well as his likeness was so refined by the 1790s that in many of his later portraits, he appears to concentrate almost entirely on physiognomy, with the details of costume practically obliterated.[1] But in his 1797 portrait of Jean Turpinier, Greuze strove for and achieved a sense of relaxed gentility, and refinement of finish that indicate this was a commission he undertook with particular care and attention.

In 1797, Greuze found himself in dire financial straights, the great fortune he had accumulated over the last thirty-odd years having dwindled as a result of the waning popularity of his work, coupled with the state of his investments, which, having been largely dependent on it, had imploded along with the ancient regime. To make matters worse, for years Greuze had been embroiled in a complicated lawsuit. Greuze’s brother Jacques, who was the sole legatee of their father’s will, had fled to Switzerland in fear for his life as he had refused to sign allegiance to the Revolutionary government. Before he left he signed all of his assets and property over to his housekeeper Jeanne-Charlotte Commerçon. Commerçon managed to run through the liquid capital so quickly, that in 1793, she was obliged to sell one of the two remaining Greuze properties to pay back the Convention, who were sequestering the assets of all known suspects. Commerçon, now finding herself effectively homeless, petitioned Jean-Baptiste for his claim of any future proceeds on the sale of the one remaining property, which at this point, was all Greuze could look forward to as any kind of pension. Tired and confused, Greuze approached his local lawyer and friend Turpinier and pathetically placed his entire trust in him to resolve the matter. While Commerçon initially won the suite, it was quickly overturned on appeal. Greuze was so grateful to Turpinier; he immediately offered to paint his wife’s portrait by way of thanks. As it happened, Madame Turpinier was ill and unable to sit for Greuze at his studio on rue Basse, so Turpinier went instead and his portrait was completed on 19 March 1797. Greuze delivered it with a letter to Turpinier thanking him for his help and conveying his hope that the portrait should find favour with Madame Turpinier (see Appendix). In the years following, Greuze, his financial position unimproved, wrote to Turpinier at least twice more requesting the liquidation of the remaining property, as well as his patience with receiving the rest of his fees. The portrait, which had remained in the families of Turpinier’s descendants until its recent sale on the Paris art market, was exhibited only once in 1877.

Greuze’s early artistic efforts were encouraged by Charles Grandon, a Lyonnaise artist who specialised in portrait-painting. Grandon had persuaded Greuze’s reluctant father of his son’s talents the boy studied with Grandon in his Lyon studio until about 1755, when he went to Paris. Greuze did not immediately impress his teachers at the Académie, but when he produced his first picture, Le Père de famille expliquant la Bible a ses enfants, which was followed by other similar works, Greuze began to be noticed and he soon won the support of Ange-Laurent de Lalive de Jully, a well-known connoisseur and the brother-in-law of Madame d’Epinay. In 1755, with the exhibition of his work Aveugle trompé, Greuze was finally agréé by the Academy.

By the end of the same year, Greuze travelled to Italy, in company with the Abbé Louis Gougenot, a sort of honorary member of the Academy. Greuze had been embarrassed by his ignorance of Italian styles and models and chafed at being reminded of this by his peers at the Academy, but the Italianate never really informed Greuze’s style ever after his return to Paris, as his subsequent contributions to the Salon of 1757 and 1761, such as L’accordée de village (Louvre) can attest.

By 1763, Greuze’s particular talents as a portrait painter, and his distinctive metier for moralising genre scenes, which were highly marketable on the prints market, had established his success as an artist. Two years later, at his professional zenith, he exhibited no less than thirteen works, including La Jeune Fille qui pleure son oiseau mort, La Bonne Mère, Le Mauvais fils puni (Louvre) and La Malediction paternelle (Louvre). But for all their popular success, this works were far from ‘academic’ and Greuze found himself under increasing pressure to produce his diploma work and forbidden from exhibiting until he had complied with their regulations. Greuze petitioned the Academy and Denis Diderot, having read his letter said: ‘I have read the letter [from the Academy], which is a model of honesty and reverence; I have seen Greuze’s response, which is a model of vanity and impertinence: he should have backed it up with a masterpiece, and that’s precisely what he didn’t do.’[2]

Finally in his effort to be officially received by the Academy, and therefore necessary, as a history painter, Greuze produced Septime Sévère et Caracalla (Louvre). Exhibited in 1769, side by side with Greuze’s portrait of Etienne Jeaurat (Louvre), and his Petite Fille au chien noir, the Roman scene must have looked bizarre, but the Academicians received their new member with all due honours. However, this must have seemed to Greuze a kind of Pyrrhic victory, because according to Diderot, at the close of the ceremonies the Director said to him, “Sir, the Academy has accepted you, but only as peintre de genre; the Academy has respect for your former productions, which are excellent, but she has shut her eyes to this one, which is unworthy, both of her and of you yourself.”[3] Greuze later found out by accident that he was still only a genre painter and not a history painter and was outraged and quarrelled bitterly with the confreres, but to no avail. Humiliated and having long since alienated most of his peers with his arrogance and erratic temper, Greuze voluntarily severed his ties with the Academy.  He would not exhibit there again until 1804, when, after the Revolution, the Academy was effectively open to anyone with a paintbrush.

Instead, Greuze exhibited in his studio in the Louvre concurrently with the annual Salon. He also exhibited with his Masonic ‘brother’ Jean-Antoine Houdon at their lodge Les Neufs Soeurs, at the Salon de la Correspondance, the Société des Beaux-Arts, Montpellier, and elsewhere. He continued to flourish as both a portrait painter – among his most famous being those of Mozart, Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte – and as a genre painter. His moralising genre scenes were so successful that four of the most distinguished engravers of that date, Massard père, Flipart, Gaillard and Levasseur, were specially entrusted by Greuze to reproduce his compositions. His works were also engraved by Laurent Cars and Le Bas.

But in spite of his maverick success, in 1805 Greuze died alone and poor in his former studio in the Louvre, his former wealth dissipated by bad judgment, poor investments, and a disastrous marriage. In his last years he was forced even to solicit commissions, which at this stage, he no longer had the power to complete successfully.

In spite of how he ended his career (and perhaps ironically, given his failure as a history painter), Greuze’s enduring reputation depends largely on how he managed to triumph over the artificial. Though this was largely unappreciated in his own time, his undeniable sense of melodrama was always tempered by the objectivity and clarity of his technique. Greuze’s têtes-de-expression, which fuel the plot of his genre scenes, and the immediacy, vitality and nuance of his portraiture, are key contributions to the development of French art, because like Rousseau’s assault on staged nature several decades later, it was Greuze’s uncompromising pursuit of l’expression that helped usher realisme into French art.



 Je viens de finir votre portrait il a été tracé par la reconnaissance et par l’amitié que je vous ai voué pour la vie. Je souhaite qu’il puisse plaire à Madame votre épouse a qui vous le destine, qu’elle puisse y trouver cette expression qui la determine à vous être attaché pour la vie, cette âme distingué – je n’ose en dire davantage de crainte de blesser votre modestie. Je désire de tout mon coeur qu’il puisse me mériter votre amitié. Vous m’avez promis de me donner encore une séance, faite moi le plaisir de m’indiquer le jour surtout le plus tôt possible, vous m’obligeré véritablement.

 J’ai l’honneur d’être avec le plus sincère attachement, Monsieur,

Votre très humble et très obeisant serviteur. Greuze.

 Ce 19 Mars 1797 (vieux style)

A Monsieur/ Monsieur Tupinier/ Juge au Tribunal de cassation/ rue autefeuille à Paris’ 


[1] Cf: Portrait of Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne, c. 1790s, oil on panel, 59.1 x 48.8 cm, Dallas, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1961.105.

[2] ‘J’ai vu la lettre [of the Academy], qui est un modèle d’honnêteté et d’estime; j’ai vu la réponse de Greuze, qui est un modèle de vanité et d’impertinence: il fallait appuyer cela d’un chef-d’œuvre, et c’est ce que Greuze n’a pas fait.’, D. Diderot, Salon, 1769.

[3] “Monsieur, l’Académie vous a reçu, mais c’est comme peintre de genre; elle a eu égard à vos anciennes productions, qui sont excellentes, et elle a fermé les yeux sur celle-ci, qui n’est digne ni d’elle ni de vous.”, Ibid.

60 x 50 cm; 23⅝ x 19¾ in.
Oil on panel

Jean Turpinier and thence by descendent


Letter from J. B. Greuze to Jean Tupinier, dated 19 March 1797 (see appendix).

  1. Martin and C. Masson, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint et dessiné de J. B. Greuze, Paris, 1908, no. 1255.

A Brookner, Greuze, 1725-1805, The rise and fall of an eighteenth-century phenomenon, 1972, London, p. 85.

  1. Munhall, Greuze the Draughtsman, exhib. cat., New York, The Frick Collection, 2002, referenced in the ‘Summary Biography’ by Edgar Munhall, p. 27.

Lyon, 1877, Exposition retrospective, no. 196.

Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780