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Une jeune fille qui pleure la mort de son oiseau (A girl weeping over her dead bird)

Une jeune fille qui pleure la mort de son oiseau (A girl weeping over her dead bird)
signed and dated 'I. GREUZE. 1757' (lower right, on the bird cage)
oil on canvas, oval
27 7/8 x 23 ½ in. (70.7 x 59.6 cm.)
Sophie Maria Josphine Albina Chotek von Chotkow und Wognin (1868-1914), Vienna, Her Highness the Duchess of Hohenberg, wife of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and by descent to her son,
Maximilian von Hohenburg (1902-1962), Duke of Hohenburg.
with Galerie Cailleux, Paris, before 1957.
Marcel Leclercq Masurel, Roubaix, France (according to a label on the reverse).
[The Property of a Lady]; Sotheby's, 10 July 1968, lot 93 (to Monckton).
[The Property of a Lady]; Sotheby's, London, 30 June 1971, lot 31.
Dr. Klaus Virch, Kiel.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 January 1987, lot 96, where acquired by the present owner.
C. Mauclair, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Paris, 1905(?), p. 47 and 132, no. 703.
J. Sezmec and J. Adheman, Diderot Salons, I, Oxford, 1957, p. 53, under Salon of 1759, p. 53-54, no. 107.
P. Cailleux, Cailleux 1912-1962, Paris, 1963, n.p., illustrated.
A. Brookner, Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon, Greenwich, CT, 1972, p. 100 (as lost).
E. Munhall, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, exhibition catalogue, Hartford, CT, 1976-77, p. 104, under no. 44. note 2.
J. Choillet, Diderot Essais sur la pienture, Salons de 1759, 1761, 1763, ed. G. May, Paris, 1984, p. 101, footnote 45.
E. Munhall, Diderot et l'Art de Boucher à David. Les Salons 1759-1781, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1984, p. 241.
E. Munhall, Greuze the Draftsman, exhibition catalogue, New York, The Frick Collection, and Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002, p. 22.
Paris, Salon, 1759, no. 107.

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Lot Essay

The sentimental subject of a young woman weeping over the death of her pet bird was a favorite of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who painted it on at least three occasions. This, his first painting of the theme, is signed and dated ‘1757’ and was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1759, the third Salon in which he participated. Already patronized by many of the most illustrious collectors in France, Greuze showed twenty works at the exhibition, including many of the finest and best-known paintings of his early career, among them ‘Simplicity’ (fig. 1; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth), painted for the Marquis de Marigny, ‘Silence!’ (Buckingham Palace, London, Royal Collection), made for Jean de Jullienne, ‘The Wool Winder’ (The Frick Collection, New York), property of the Marquis de Bandol, and the Portrait of Ange-Laurent La Live de Jully (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), painted for the sitter. Despite this dazzling display of virtuosity and variety, Denis Diderot – the philosophe and art critic who was among Greuze’s greatest champions – casually dismissed all of the artist’s 1759 entries: “The Greuzes are not marvelous this year. Their execution is stiff, and the coloring insipid and chalky. I used to be tempted by them. I don’t care for them anymore.” He did not single out the present painting, or any other, for further comment.

Edgar Munhall associated this first and most richly realized depiction by Greuze of a young woman weeping over her dead bird, as well as two other paintings of the same theme, with an ancient verse by Catullus, the 1st century B.C.E. lyric poet, that the artist could have known from Marolle’s French translation of 1653 (Greuze’s second painting of the subject was exhibited in the Salon of 1765 and is today in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; his third and final depiction of the motif appeared in the Salon of 1800 and entered the Louvre, Paris, in 1904 as a bequest of Baron Arthur de Rothschild). Catullus writes: “Time for mourning, Loves and Cupids/ And any man of wit and love,/ The sparrow’s dead, my girl’s own sparrow/ That she loved more than her eyes:/ For it was sweeter and knew her better/ Than any girl might know her mother/[ ….] Now it goes to the darkened pathway/ Out of which, they say, none comes back./ But curses on you, cursed darkness/ […] You have taken my little sparrow away./ Oh, badly done! Oh, poor little bird!/ It’s all your doing, my poor girl’s eyes/ Are heavy and red with weeping now” (‘Lugete, O Veneris Cupidinesque’; C.H. Sisson, trans.).

Catalogued in the Salon of 1759 as ‘Une Jeune Fille qui pleure la mort de son oiseau’ (‘A Young Girl who cries at the death of her bird’), Greuze’s painting provides an arresting image that matches the poem in evoking the shock and grief which follows the first confrontation with the mystery and finality of death. The painting impresses us most with the richness of its fluent brushwork and creamy impasto, the extreme subtlety and nuance of the flesh tones, and the marvelously observed and rendered play of light across the various textures and materials that Greuze renders: curly hair, supple skin, silk, muslin, pearls, twigs and rough wood, twisting ivy, the soft down of bird feathers. Despite the artist’s two years in Rome studying its ancient and modern treasures, it is the influence of the 17th-century Dutch masters that infuses this painting, albeit refined with an undeniably Parisian elegance. Although the girl’s costume and jewelry display an opulence and evident cost, and her coiffure reveals the careful handiwork of a lady’s maid, the golden palette of earthy browns, mossy greens and saffron yellows – as well as the thick, impasted brushwork – speaks to a deep study of Rembrandt, as the moralizing genre subject takes inspiration from the pictures of the Dutch ‘Little Masters’ such as Gerrit Dou.

While he had ignored the present painting and dismissed Greuze’s entire 20-painting envoi to the Salon of 1759, Diderot expressed unrestrained enthusiasm for the artist’s entries to the Salon of 1765. The critic’s greatest praise fell to ‘Une Jeune Fille, qui pleure son oiseau mort’ (Edinburgh), a painting in subject, sentiment and format that almost exactly recalls the present painting from 1757, although in a less elaborated setting and slightly reduced scale. Calling it “a delicious painting, the most attractive and perhaps the most interesting in the Salon,” Diderot saw more behind the girl’s tears than just the death of a beloved pet, but detected mourning for the loss of her virginity: “That girl is weeping over something else, I tell you”. In a lengthy discourse, he imagined a conversation with the young woman in which she reveals that following a visit from her lover in her mother’s absence, she allowed the sparrow – a gift from her lover – to die of neglect in her distraction. The sparrow’s death, she realizes, presages her own eventual abandonment by the man who seduced her.

Other critics failed to recognize the particular nuances that Diderot saw in the painting, praising instead its obvious naturalism, technical skill and touching sentiment. Yet even Catullus’s verse alludes to the presence of an unseen lover and, as Diderot and Greuze had a close friendship by 1765, it is possible that the critic’s recognition of an erotic subtext in the picture reflects personal knowledge of the artist’s intent. Singular though it was at the time, Diderot’s interpretation of the painting has endured and is today almost universally applied to the present painting as well.

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