We do not have the same enthusiasm today as Diderot for the sentimental compositions of Greuze, for his family scenes whose reputation is universal, but we admire in him the painter of the children, the heads of young girls, the charming colourist of innocence. No one, like him, knew how to render the incarnate flesh, the tenderness of the looks, the shuddering of the lips; his brush has inimitable delicacy, his palette of flower tones. Greuze, and this is the secret of the fame he now enjoys, has a special talent for painting the woman in her first flower, when the button opens in pink and the child becomes a girl. As, in the eighteenth century, everyone was a little daring, even the moralists, Greuze, when he paints an Innocence, is always careful to open the gauze and let a glimpse of nascent throat; he puts in his eyes a lustrous flame and on his lips a wet smile, very much appreciated in the painting of that time.
The Broken Pitcher is the model of this kind. The head still shows the innocence of childhood, but the damask is disturbed, the rose of the bodice is stripped, the flowers are only half retained by the fold of the dress, and the jug lets out the water by his crack. What an adorable child’s face! It is impossible to see anything younger, fresher, more candid and more coquettishly virginal, if these two words can go together.
The pretty little girl must have been sent to the fountain, which can be seen on the right, to fill her jug. But too much absorbed by the care of the flowers harvested on the road, she struck the fragile container against the angle of the fountain and now the water fled through the wide sandstone wound. On the child’s forehead floats a vague anxiety, the eyes betray a slight fear. She knows that maternal remonstrances await her at home and that gives her pretty face a charming air of melancholy. But what is this accident for her, in comparison with the bunch of roses she presses against her, in the folds of her apron? And if she seems reluctant to return home, at least she seems determined to not give up her fragrant picking. What admirable art in the hesitating expression of this face, and how one reads there the contradictory thoughts which are agitated in this young soul! And what about that pearly, transparent color that puts such pretty rosettes on the cheeks and so shimmery hues on the dress?
In the presence of this charming child’s head, it is difficult to explain the disrepute with which Greuze’s painting suffered so long. Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau, moreover, experienced the same fate, under the influence of David and the romantic reaction. It took a real crusade of people of taste and writers like Theophile Gautier and Goncourt to restore their share of glory. Let’s listen to Goncourt tell us about Greuze.
“The charm of Greuze, his vocation, his originality, his strength appears there, and only shows itself there, in these childish heads. They alone buy all the weaknesses, all the falsehoods, and all the miseries of color, so visible in his large paintings, the drooling whites, the general range, both dull and gray, mellow violet tones and pigeon throat, the indecision of the reds, the dirt of the blues, the softness and the bubbling of the bottoms, the thickness of the shadows. But if we reopen our eyes on those little blond heads that a ray wakes up, that the sun caresses and borders, we feel that the hand, the hand inspired by a real painter has passed on these cheeks whipped by the red of health, smoothed and bulged this little brow where the day lives, put in that blue-eyed eye, the lightning and the sky, and cast a caress of shadow under the sketched eyebrow, made the bow mouth pressed by both cheeks, the pout of a cherub. Nothing is cooler, more vividly, and more lightly touched; the tone is tender and, like everything soaked with oil, the impasto blossoms the flesh by touching it, the incipient physiognomy, the barely cleared forms seem, under the smear that jogs with them, to tremble like things at dawn . A great life animates all these chubby little figures, who are thought to have already seen animated with a solid life in the portraits of families of Van Dyck. Painter of childhood, Greuze is a master when he touches the girl’s head.”
If, as a painter of genre, Greuze is too often melodramatic and vulgar, by its delicate and precious heads of children, it belongs well to this eighteenth century which is the beautiful period of art of France and that Michelet does not hesitate to call “the great century”.
The Broken Pitcher is oval. It was bought by the State in 1875 at the sale of the Marquis de Verri for the sum of 3.001 francs. Madame du Barry had had a rehearsal done.
Height: 1.10 – Width: 0.85 – Figure to the knees, natural size.