Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 22, 2000
Mark Ledbury Sedaine, Greuze, and the Boundaries of Genre Voltaire Foundation, 2000. 366 pp.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $98.00 (0729407039)

Writing on the Salon of 1755, the abbé de la Porte concluded his enthusiastic review of Jean-Baptiste Greuze with the phrase, “One would like to know him.” (quoted in Munhall, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 11). This comment is ambiguous, since, despite his longing to know Greuze, it was apparently clear to the abbé that the work and the man were not transparent reflections of each other. For modern audiences, such longing is puzzling: we think we know Greuze all too well. Even some of the most scholarly accounts have stressed his eccentricity and vanity, his penchant for painting pathetic adolescents and domestic dramas, and his eventual disgrace and retreat from the French Academy.

Mark Ledbury’s ambitious book, Sedaine, Greuze and the Boundaries of Genre, is not merely a study of Greuze, but of the fabric of the artistic and literary thought in which he participated. Ledbury suggests that we may not have known Greuze as well as we think. Perhaps, we never knew him at all. Ledbury’s picture of Greuze is refreshing because it proposes that his choice of subject matter was defined by a desire to engage seriously with a larger discussion of genre in the arts, rather than by his personal obsessions. The book strives to reconstruct this complex, ephemeral “aesthetic dialogue,”(Ledbury’s phrase)—ephemeral because only suggestions of contact between Greuze and Sedaine exist. Ledbury seeks out compelling parallels between the production and reception of the two men’s work, which in both cases challenged accepted notions of high and low genres. To do this, Ledbury draws from a wealth of material, including extended discussions of Sedaine’s plays as well as some new archival evidence not previously published.

By its very nature, a comparative study such as this one creates problems for its author, with organization being one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. Extensive preliminary discussions tend to diffuse the strength of Ledbury’s central argument. He devotes a lengthy chapter to Sedaine after a much briefer one on the relationship between art and theater, and Greuze does not make his appearance until 124 of the text’s 308 pages have already passed. However, as an art historian, Ledbury is to be commended for entering unapologetically into the realm of eighteenth-century drama, and his discussions of Sedaine’s work reveal a sensitive and careful reader. In contrast to Greuze’s traditionally overexposed personality, Ledbury’s discussion of Sedaine, (who began as a mason and part-time poet, later achieved success both in architecture and letters, but continued to struggle against outrageous academic prejudice), adds a compelling, human dimension to his narrative.

Working from his assertion that Greuze and Sedaine were self-consciously pushing the “boundaries of genre” in their work, often causing misunderstanding, negative reception or out-and-out rejection of what they produced, Ledbury offers several new readings of canonical Greuze images. For example, he challenges the seemingly unambiguous moral message of The Family Bible Reading, suggesting that the “ambiguous and even inappropriate expression[s]” of the family members alter the painting’s image of patriarchal power and simple religious faith (127). Unfortunately, Ledbury does not reproduce this image, which is in a private collection, and readers are left to imagine the kinds of disruptive expressions and gestures he describes.

In his other re-readings of Greuze’s major works, such as The Village Bride, The Broken Eggs, Filial Piety, theUngrateful Son images, and the much-maligned Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla, Ledbury’s thesis is that certain character types, situations, and settings owe a debt to various forms of popular theater, including the opéra comique and pastoral traditions, and he reads these images closely for signs of the mixing of high and low genres. In a particularly convincing passage, Ledbury exposes Diderot’s desire to appropriate The Village Bride as the incarnation of his own dramatic aspirations. In this way, Diderot was able to deny Greuze agency and downplay his technical innovations. Ledbury’s sophisticated analysis of the mystifying, often one-sided relationship between the two men colors any further reading of Diderot as disinterested interlocutor.

Ledbury’s discussion of Greuze’s Septimius Severus, the history painting that ultimately caused Greuze’s self-imposed exile from the Academy, is particularly innovative. While admitting that the painting is “self-conscious and awkward,” Ledbury uses those very characteristics to explain how this image blurs genre distinctions (160). The story of Septimius Severus, as Ledbury tells it, is as much domestic drama as historical scene, and this reduction of heroic history to something akin to family genre, combined with Greuze’s annoying ability to excel in various genres, angered Academic authorities because it threatened the future of history painting. Ledbury illuminates Diderot’s often-quoted complaint that Caracalla was “a mixture of the classical god and the frightened adolescent,” to show that what was read by critics as a bad painting—according to established rules—was actually an intentional mixing of high and low forms (179). After all, it included tragic and comic elements, ambiguous gestures, and a domestic setting. These were details that were not so different from what Greuze had already done to great acclaim in his earlier domestic genre paintings.

Though his argument stresses Greuze’s talent at creating various types of paintings, Ledbury’s focus on the best known of Greuze’s works is disappointing because it reinforces the genre prejudices his study seeks to expose. For example, he repeats the tendency among some scholars to privilege the multi-figure genre scenes to the exclusion of Greuze’s single-figure images. In addition, Ledbury is oddly dismissive of the few single-figure images he discusses, most notably Simplicity and The Young Shepherd, oval-format pendants commissioned by Marigny for Madame de Pompadour. Ledbury describes Simplicity, an image of a girl plucking flower petals (as in “he loves me, he loves me not”), as “a blank face, inscrutable, infantilised, simpering and far from instructive. This was simple-mindedness, not simplicity . . .” (139). If Ledbury had engaged with eighteenth-century ideas of femininity and masculinity in his discussion, particularly as regards the pastoral form, his reading of this image would have been richer.

Similarly, when discussing Simplicity’s pendant, The Young Shepherd, Ledbury delivers a curiously low blow: [he is]“. . . in every respect not quite a man . . . His smock engulfs his waist, its many folds betraying a lack of substance . . . [and] the drooping rose and hangdog expression . . . contribute to a feeling of impotence rather than vibrant sexual expectation”(140). For these and other reasons, Ledbury suggests that Marigny and Madame de Pompadour were displeased with these paintings, which Ledbury even sees as critical of “effeminized” court culture because of the point at which Greuze cuts off the figures.

Though Ledbury appears to discount their importance, Greuze’s single figures often suggest rather than implicitly state a narrative through dress, props, and the kind of complex, ambiguous facial expression that Ledbury values when associated with other kinds of “hybrid genre” images. In addition, Janie Vanpée has argued convincingly that images like these always “implicate the viewer’s presence and act of looking” (L’Esprit Créateur vol. 28, no. 4, Winter 1988, 46). This apparent “blankness” may have been understood in the eighteenth century as an openness that acknowledged the complex relationship between a viewer and a painting. One could even go so far as to suggest a relationship that is embodied by precisely the kind of “pleasure of possibility” evident in these images of adolescents on the brink of amorous knowledge.

In seeking to understand Greuze and Sedaine as part of a larger social and aesthetic framework, Ledbury’s methodology derives from the work of Thomas Crow, who was his advisor on the thesis that ultimately became this book. We should not be surprised then that Ledbury’s book ends with a chapter on David, a choice that ultimately undercuts the importance of Sedaine, Greuze, and the other artistic and literary figures he chronicles so convincingly. While David is undoubtedly vital to understanding eighteenth-century French art, Ledbury’s choice to end his study with David rehearses a stereotypical scenario in which Greuze is cast as a minor player whose innovations simply pave the way for the inevitable triumph of David, the heroic leading man. This tendency to see Greuze as David manqué clouds our understanding of his work, and we are no closer to “knowing” him than the abbé de la Porte was in 1755.

These misgivings aside, Ledbury has written a book that engages with key ideas regarding genre in the visual and dramatic arts, and in many ways gets to the heart of eighteenth-century discussions of what art was expected to be and do. His thoughtful and intelligent study will be of keen interest to historians of art and theater alike. It is an important contribution to any discussion of Sedaine, Greuze, and the artistic world they helped to make.

Alden Cavanaugh
Indiana State University