Greuze and his Followers
Certainly by midcentury, intellectual trends were affecting the visual arts as much as the practical conditions of exhibiting and the art market were. Jean-Baptiste Greuze was a favorite artist both of the enlightened intelligentsia and of the Salon-visiting public. His works depict the shift from the courtly elegance of a Watteau or a Boucher to the more homespun world of secular moral values promoted by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Marriage Contract shows a prosperous rural family and the betrothal of the eldest daughter to the young man at the center: he has just accepted the dowry from her aged father, and the notary at right has recorded this civil contract. The painting informs us in detail about the family and their reactions. To a modern audience it may appear sentimental, and certainly many sentiments are portrayed, as the participants react in different ways. But contemporaries gave free reign to their emotions as they read such a work. It was admired by enlightened thinkers for its implicit praise of agricultural life, family values, the marriage contract, and population growth. In works such as this, Greuze, much more than Chardin before him, was elevating genre painting by introducing didactic moral concerns previously found only in history painting. Commissioned by the marquis de Marigny, minister of fine arts, the picture was a popular success at the Salon of 1765.
Greuze had already made his mark at Salon exhibitions during the 1750s, when he challenged Chardin as a painter of popular genre subjects drawn from lower-class life. His Indolence, showing a lazy servant, is a humorous--but no less moralizing--commentary on the virtuous servants and kitchen maids depicted by his rival Chardin. Indeed, from the mid-1750s to the late 1770s, Greuze's skill as a narrative painter, the strong emotions he stimulated in his audience, and the moral values his art often expressed made him the dominant figure in genre painting. Among his many followers was Étienne Aubry, whose Paternal Love is a model example of what the critic Denis Diderot admired as "moral genre" when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1775. In a simple bourgeois rural household--so different from the courtly and aristocratic world of De Troy or Boucher--Aubry depicted a scene of domestic bliss. A prosperously but unostentatiously dressed man has returned from his travels and lovingly assumes his paternal duties to his three young children, alongside his adoring wife and doting father. The painting expresses heartfelt emotion and, in line with the latest Enlightenment ideas, extols family life and the engagement of both parents in the rearing of their children.