Dear Jean-Baptiste Greuze,
Forgive my long delay in writing. For, you see, I have been suffocating in your cramped composition for years. In spite of everything, this confinement will not discourage me from rewriting your staged drama, regardless of your seamless deception.
From my dishevelled dress, tangled pearls and wrinkled robes, to my agitated dog, ringless finger and broken mirror – they were all naturally convinced. Over the centuries, I was the picture of pity, fallen virtue and so-called emotional realism. They revelled in my misfortune, enthralled by your narrative dramatics and 'literary painting' (i) style. They furrowed their brows, leant in close to the small canvas, and whispered 'this is a parable of carelessness', 'her morals are in disarray' (ii). As thematics of transgressive love and jeopardised virginity saturated eighteenth-century French culture, society leapt at my infidelity and savoured my scandal.
With startling realism, your refined, glossy brushwork composes the perfect picture of corruption. The ripples and texture of my satin dress are executed with meticulous accuracy: such precision makes the weight of the fabric tangible. My crisp white dress, unravelling around my fair skin, contrasts with the dark walls of my room: mistaken, they assumed this disparity was an allusion to my tainted piety.
But, you framed me.
In the centre of the canvas, I lean on a strong diagonal line, balancing on the edge of my chair. This forms a sense of imminent calamity which animates the face of every viewer. By cluttering my pictorial plane, filling it with allegories, you direct the viewer's eye towards the empty foreground, upon which my favourite mirror lies. I overheard that each shard upon the floor embodies my vanity; probably because I undermined one of the many eighteenth-century female conventions. My subversiveness and your eccentric detail partnered to make a captivating scene. As you illuminate my intimate space with intense impasto white you transform it into a stage. Then you set the atmosphere – tense and stagnant – by staining the canvas with cool tones. Brushes of sombre blue suggest how I should feel.
Although, admittedly in the moment my spirits lifted as you made me a 'celebrity among contemporary viewers' (iii). When the philosopher Diderot labelled your work 'morality in paint' (iv), I realised that I was just a vehicle for speculation – an excuse to make virtue enticing. I thought that as an 'enlightened thinker' he might have seen past your visual tricks. How could he ignore that in the midst of my destruction, no great distress marked my expression? Your tight brushwork softens and loosens around my face as if to blur my true character.
You depict me despondent, absorbed by thoughts, gaze detached, but not defeated; this is not self-abandonment as people insisted. One rather inventive critic claimed: 'The moral and literary character of (your) themes is revealed by the titles' (v). Surely nobody could have defined my whole character from two words – not even written by me? Perhaps if they had scrutinised my parable further your moral messages would have unravelled.
If only they could have acknowledged that this is just a fragment of the tale and see that my story expands further than your cropped composition. It's clear that my dog jumps into the frame from elsewhere, that the lid of my open sewing box falls out of sight, and that your version of the truth is incomplete.
I propose a contradictory story – no matter how compelling yours was – in which the shards of glass are emblematic of my distorted reflection. A reflection which has been unjustly pieced together over the years. A reflection shaped into something far from myself. I am determined not to be categorised as another one of your 'so-called Greuze girls' (vi), 'designed to function as agents of seduction for the viewer' (vii). Instead, now in the twenty-first century, I would like to see a clear reflection, separate from your network of lies.
Till then, your misunderstood muse.
Ruby Langan-Hughes, winner of Write on Art 2020, Y12/13
(i) F. J. B. Watson, Review of Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon by Anita Brookner in The Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 121, no. 5202, 1973, pp. 407–408
(ii) Description of The Broken Mirror on The Wallace Collection's website, accessed 7th July 2020
(iii) Bernadette Fort, 'The Greuze Girl: The Invention of a Pictorial Paradigm' in Studies in the History of Art, vol. 72, 2007, pp. 128–151, accessed 7th July 2020
(iv) Jean-Baptiste Greuze, entry from The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)
(v) Watson, pp. 407–408
(vi) and (vii) Fort, pp. 128–151