This charming pair of paintings is notable in the oeuvre of Greuze for its unusually small-scale, full-length format, which may reflect the commission that inspired it. An old inscription on the verso of the board that backs one of the paintings describes the subjects of both pictures. It also explains that ‘these two compositions, which are made as pendants, after one of the tales of Marmontel, Annette and Lubin, were painted by Greuze in a château in Touraine, where he had particularly associated himself with the family of M. de Goyeneche, equerry to Monsieur, brother of the King. These two pictures have always remained in this family. Sale 25 March 1875, collection of Eduardo de Los Rege’. Greuze can be presumed to have made them while staying near Tours at the country estate of M. de Goyeneche, equerry in the household of the Comte de Provence, brother of Louis XVI.
The two paintings depict the title characters from Annette et Lubin, one of the Contes moraux published in 1761 (fig. 1) by the Enlightenment historian, novelist and Encyclopédiste, Jean- François Marmontel (1723-1799), which was adapted by the famous singer and actress Marie-Justine Benôite Favart (1727-1772) into a one-act pastoral comedy the following year. The play was in verse with incidental music by Adolphe Blaise (c. 1720-1772) and premiered at the Opéra Comique on 15 February 1762. An immediate hit, it remained in the Paris repertoire for several weeks running, was favorably reviewed and quickly adapted and performed throughout Europe. Although rarely staged today, Annette et Lubin is regarded as a key work of Enlightenment musical theatre.
Annette et Lubin is a sentimental tale of ‘natural’ love – romantic love freed from the strictures of money and social position – that is imperiled by the disapproval of rich and powerful aristocratic forces. Although Mme. Favart, who was approaching the end of her singing career, tailored the character of Annette to suit her own strengths as a performer, the plot closely followed Marmontel’s original, an ‘histoire véritable’ based on a contemporary incident in the northern French town of Cormeilles. In Marmontel’s tale the love between Lubin and his cousin Annette is roundly condemned by the bailiff, who himself has designs on the simple country girl. Annette is expecting an illegitimate child, which the bailiff uses as an opportunity to blackmail her. Only by marrying him, he claims, can she save herself from the condemnation of Church and society. But Annette and her young lover Lubin succeed in gaining the protection of the local lord. The story ends happily, with ‘Le Seigneur’ vowing to write to Rome so that the lovers may marry legitimately, expiating their ‘crime’. For the purposes of the stage, Mme. Favart eliminated both the pregnancy and controversial references to the Church, turning the comic opera into a tribute to the virtues of true and ‘natural’ love.
Although the present canvases are pendants, they represent different moments in the play. In Scene II, Lubin, holding a bouquet of flowers, sings to Annette:
Dear Annette, gather the tribute That my heart pays you daily. This bouquet is the lovely image Of your radiance and youth; To grace with yet more charm The flowers I have selected for you I lay them on your breast; With these two roses there will be three.
Greuze depicts Annette, however, as she appears in Scene VI, where she weeps over the dismal future predicted by the bailiff for her and her child, in what is the most celebrated aria in the opera:
Poor Annette! Ah! Poor Annette! What secret sorrow Stops and worries me!
Many French artists were inspired by the popularity of the Marmontel’s story and Favart’s opera to depict episodes from the tale in paintings, drawings and prints. For example, Jean-Honoré Fragonard rendered Annette at the Age of Fifteen (lost) and Annette at the age of Twenty (fig. 2; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica) in a pair of paintings once in the collection of the Comtesse du Barry. Indeed, Greuze himself made two drawings of Annette and Lubin shortly after the musical’s initial success; these drawings were engraved in 1769 by Binet. The present paintings are entirely different in composition and style to Greuze’s earlier pair of drawings, and date significantly later. The reduced, earthy palette and soft, brushy handling of the present paintings are characteristic of his style in the late 1780s and early 1790s, around the start of the Revolution. It seems possible that the artist might have been inspired to revisit the subject of Annette and Lubin by the remarkable discovery in the late 1780s that the actual couple on which Marmontel had based his story was still alive but suffering a penurious old age. The news received wide-spread attention in the contemporary press and prompted many to come to the support of the elderly pair, including the players of the Comédie Italienne, who promised to raise for them a pension of 300 livres. Debucourt made a colour print of a scene from Annette et Lubin, announced in April 1789, promising to give the couple half the proceeds from sales of the first 300 impressions of the engraving. With the return of the tale to the headlines, it seems likely that Greuze (or perhaps his patron, Goyeneche) decided to revive a romantic and sentimental subject made popular a generation earlier.