Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers, was wife to Zephyr, the god of the west wind and harbinger of mild springs and early summer breezes. In De Rerum Natura (5: 736-739), Lucretius tells how Flora followed the footsteps of Zephyr in springtime, strewing the way with blossoms. Ovid tells of Flora’s garden, a gift to her from Zephyr, which he filled with flowers. Greuze depicts the wedded pair in this flowery glade. Zephyr is portrayed as a young god with butterfly wings, and both he and Flora scatter flowers as they go.
This gentle and joyous painting, not far removed from the neoclassical mythological decorations of Vien and Lagrenée in the final years of the Ancien Régime, is a late work by Greuze, painted near the very end of the 18th century, at the height of Napoleon’s Directory, years marked by civil repression, political unrest and military conquest. Nothing of this dramatic social upheaval can be detected in Greuze’s elegant and carefree canvas. Despite a higher-keyed palette and cheerful tone, Flora and Zephyr invokes the same sort of amorous poetry by Anacreon and Catullus that had inspired the sulphurous hothouse nocturnes of Fragonard – such as The Sacrifice of the Rose – a decade earlier. Resolutely Neoclassical in its subject matter, Flora and Zephyr is nonetheless executed in the softer, looser and more broad-brushed handling of Greuze’s late manner. Edgar Munhall records a drawing for the figure of Flora having been in the collection of the New York art dealer, Mortimer Brandt.
Although Greuze retreated into the world of divine fecundity in Flora and Zephyr, he did not generally look to escape from the hard realities of Paris during the Revolution, in either his work or his life. He seems to have been predisposed to the radical reforms of the era, and in 1793, joined the powerful Commune Générale des Arts, led by David and Restout. He is said to have depicted a number of revolutionary events – including the Massacre in the Abbaye of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1792 and the Death of Marat – but only a drawing of Monsieur de Sombreuil Seized during the Revolution survives. He painted splendidly austere and penetrating portraits of a number of important figures of the Revolution, including the virulent anti-monarchist politician Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne (c. 1793; Dallas Museum of Art). Greuze was granted a pension in 1792 by the National Assembly in recognition of his lifetime achievements, and was one of the first people in France to obtain a divorce, immediately after the revolutionary government recognized the procedure in 1793. The following year, he was spotted in the crowd watching – with some delight, it was said – the execution of his notary and long-time patron, Duclos-Dufresnoy.
It is not known for whom the Flora and Zephyr was painted, but it has an illustrious provenance, first recorded in the collection of the celebrated Didot family of publishers and printers, and appearing in their sale in 1819, where it was acquired by Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans. It was subsequently acquired by the immensely wealthy Russian industrialist and art patron, Count Nicolas Demidoff (1773-1828), whose father, Nikita Demidoff (1724-1789), had been a friend and patron of Greuze. Count Nicolas owned no less than twenty-three paintings by Greuze, many of which were displayed in the Greuze Room of his palatial Villa San Donato that he had constructed south of Florence. The painting was sold in 1870 in the estate sale of Anatole Nikolaievich Demidoff (1812-1870), Prince of San Donato, where it was purchased by the famous French novelist and man of letters, Arsène Houssaye.