This drawing relates to the central figure of the picture that Greuze presented at the Salon of 1761 to great acclaim, and which became one of his most enduring successes, establishing him as France’s leading young painter, although in a genre not as highly regarded as history painting. A commission from the Marquis de Marigny, director of the King’s Buildings and Madame de Pompadour’s brother, it was described at the Salon as ‘the moment when the father of the fiancée hands the dowry to his son-in-law’, and is generally known as L’Accordée du village (‘The village bride-to-be’) or The marriage contract, now in the Louvre, inv. 5037 (fig. 1; see C.B. Bailey in The Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard. Masterpieces of French Genre Painting, exhib. cat., Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, and elsewhere, 2003-2004, no. 71, ill.). This early masterpiece set the tone for much of the moral content of the artist’s œuvre, marking ‘the moment when the great novelty of Greuze’s work came into focus’ (Stein, op. cit., p. 162).
The painting’s reputation relies to a large extent on the narrative the composition suggests and the various emotions which animate the figures – the future bride and groom at its center, her parents, her siblings, the notary and several other bystanders. Laid out with exemplary clarity, this narrative was prepared by the artist in a great number of preparatory studies (for a selection, including the present sheet, see E. Munhall in New York and Los Angeles 2002, nos. 15-19). The earliest known compositional study was recently rediscovered and acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 2012.16 ; see Stein, op. cit., pp. 162-166), after which Greuze made one now at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris (see New York and Los Angeles 2002, no. 15, ill.). Among the differences between the two studies is the face of the young woman, whose eyes are downcast in the study in Paris as well as in the final painting. In the present drawing, one of the most ravishing ones associated with the composition, her head is not tilted as in the final solution, but her eyes are downcast, expressing, in the words of a contemporary commentator, ‘the moment of this revolution so longed for and so feared that is going to occur in her life’ (Baron Grimm, quoted ibid., p. 76).
In contrast with the often very forceful use of red chalk seen in many of Greuze’s other head studies, here he admirably restrained himself, giving the color of the paper almost as prominent a role as the chalks, thus evoking beautifully the whiteness of the girl’s complexion and her dress in the painting – ‘a paleness,’ remarked Perrin Stein, ‘which sets her off from the more saturated colours of the other figures, accentuating her purity’ (op. cit., p. 166). A study of the entire figure is at the Musée Denon, Chalon-sur-Saône (New York and Los Angeles 2002, no. 16, ill.); a related painted study and a pastel of the girl’s head are also recorded (ibid., p. 76).
Like many of the drawings for the The marriage contract, the present study entered a prominent collection soon after the painting was unveiled. Together with a large number of other sheets by Greuze, the drawing was acquired by 1767 – undoubtedly directly from the artist – by the president of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Ivan Ivanovich Betskoy, who later gave them to the Academy, of which it bears the stamp at lower left (see I. Novoselskaya, ‘The Collection of Drawings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze in St Petersburg’, in Munhall, op. cit., pp. 28-37). Later transferred to the State Hermitage Museum, it was subsequently sold by the Soviets and has been in American collections for over fifty years. Its current reappearance brings on the market a drawing of impeccable pedigree and true significance in the artist’s œuvre, and one that stands out for its tender, haunting quality and technical delicacy.
Fig. 1. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The marriage contract, Musée du Louvre, Paris.