(b. 1725, Tournus, d. 1805, Paris)
Portrait of George Gougenot de Croissyc. 1758
Oil on canvas, 81 x 64 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
It is probably shortly after their marriage on 14 March 1757 that Greuze painted the portraits of George Gougenot de Croissy and his wife, Marie-Angélique de Varenne, the daughter of the King's equerry and counsellor-secretary. Both paintings remained together until 1937, when they were bought by two separate collectors at an auction in Paris. In 1951 the portrait of George Gougenot found its way into the Brussels museum, and that of his wife 25 years later into the New Orleans Museum of Art.
George Gougenot was the younger brother of Abbé Louis Gougenot, Greuze's friend and protector. He started his career in the navy, and followed his father as the King's counsellor-secretary. Gougenot was not only an art connoisseur, patron and an erudite man, but also showed interest in more general topics, publishing anonymously a study entitled Etat présent de la Pensylvanie (1756). In the portrait Gougenot wears a grey velvet costume, decorated with superbly reproduced cuffs and a jabot in "point d'argentan". His hand lies on the Spectator, an English journal, founded in London in 1711 to raise moral standards. The subtle grey gradations accentuate the penetrating look and the intelligent face, with the somewhat disdainful line around the mouth. The powdered wig, the refined representation of the fabric, and the vague, neutral background, produce an atmosphere of distinction and courtliness.
In his anecdotal compositions, Greuze exhibits his preference for moralising scenes. Unlike certain contemporaries, among them Hubert Robert, with their love of antiques, Greuze instead prefers to seek his inspiration from rustics and sentimental bourgeois life. Alongside his often grandiloquent representations, Greuze also executed a number of elegant but also psychological portraits, such as the canvas discussed here, a typical example from the Rococo period. Although Greuze is not a born colourist, as are his French contemporaries Jean Antoine Watteau or Jean-Honoré Fragonard, he succeeds in imparting a warmth to this portrait by means of harmonic light gradations. The particular sensitivity with which it is painted can perhaps be explained by the painter's friendship for his noble model.