“A Girl with a Dove”


Oil on panel: 64.4 x 53.3 cm /25 ¾ x 21 inches; .

Musée de La Chartreuse, Douai, France

Dossier de presse Ravet
Baron Édouard de Rothschild (d. 1949), Paris;
Baronne Édouard de Rothschild (née Germaine Halphen [1884-1975]),
Paris (a Rothschild stamp RIII appears on the cradle of the panel, 4 inches in from the left); Baron Guy de Rothschild, Paris;
P & D Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., London, 1975;
Dino Fabbri, Milan; his sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., London, 1 November 1978, lot 36 (with erroneous reference to the provenance of "Comte d'Espagnac, Paris, 1847" [see below]);
Private collection, Germany; sale, Sotheby Parke-Bernet & Co., London, 6 July 1983, lot 67 (with erroneous reference to the provenance of "Comte d'Espagnac, Paris, 1847" [see below]);
J. Martin and C. Masson, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint et dessiné J.-B. Greuze, in C. Mauclair, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Paris, 1906,
no. 476 &796
E. Munhall, Jean-Baptiste Greuze 1725-1805, exhibition catalogue, Hartford, CT, 1976, passim;
E. Munhall, "The First Lessons in Love by Jean-Baptiste Greuze," The Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin, 1977, passim;
E. Munhall, Greuze the Draftsman, exhibiton catalogue, New York-London, 2002, passim.
A young girl in an antique gown is seen, her body turned to the left, leaning on an ornate table with a lavender marble top and a gilt bronze mount of a goat's head, her arms wrapped around a dove with outstretched wings. She is seated in an elaborately carved, gilded fauteuil with a bright blue upholstered seat. A voluminous, transparent scarf envelops her. Her left shoulder is bare, as are her legs to above the knees. Her hair is light brown, her eyes blue. A light blue ribbon is braided in her hair and a rose-colored scarf is tied around her waist. A beauty mark (or wart) is apparent under her left eye. The thinly painted background is gray.

This Girl with a Dove must be one of Greuze's final variations on an iconographic theme that preoccupied him from the beginning of his career to the end: young women interacting with birds. The earliest example, signed and dated Greuze. Anno 1757 (illustration no. 2), was executed in Rome and belonged to the artist's patron the abbé Gougenot. In it, the elegant young woman is depicted delicately feeding a bird with an elongated spoon. This small wash drawing was engraved by François-Auguste Moitte with the title La Jeune Nourice. In 1758, Greuze signed and dated a study of a young woman leaning forward to watch a pair of billing doves, a subject the artist developed in a painting of about 1760, The First Lessons of Love (illustration no.3; see Munhall, 1977). At about the same time, Greuze executed an important red chalk drawing depicting a young woman watching a dove pecking at its dead partner (illustration no.4; see Munhall, 2002, no. 11).

At the Salon of 1765, Greuze exhibited with great success his Girl Weeping over Her Dead Bird (illustration no.5; see Munhall, 1976, no. 44), with which he broached the subject of a young person experiencing for the first time, the mystery of death; or - as Diderot famously implied - that of the girl’s loss of virginity. Flipart's engraving of this work became the source of innumerable copies of the composition. Probably around 1780-85, the artist painted A Girl Offering Her Breast to two Birds (illustration no.6; see Martin-Masson no. 795), in which neoclassical furniture related to that shown in the present Girl with a Dove, appears for the first time in a girl-with-bird picture.

Finally, at the Salon of 1800 - the artist’s first since 1769 - appeared his A Girl Hesitating to Touch a Bird in fear that it Might be Dead (illustration no.7; see Munhall, 1976,
p. 24; 2002, p. 27), a picture that would share a Rothschild provenance like the present Girl with a Dove, having been given to the Musée du Louvre in 1904 by the Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild. At the same Salon of 1800, Greuze exhibited yet another girl-with-bird subject: Innocence Holding Two Doves (L’Innocence tenant deux pigeons) (illustration no. 8; see Munhall, 1976, p. 26; 2002, p. 27).

It is to these two latter paintings that I would associate the present Girl with a Dove, both stylistically and because all three depict beautiful pre-pubescent girls lovingly involved with their winged companions. The significance of this curious iconography, both for Greuze himself and his intended audience, is suggested in a letter the artist addressed to his patron Prince Yusupov on 20 April 1790, regarding a similar subject (L'Oiseau favori) that he had just painted for him: "The dove which she presses against her heart so lovingly with her two hands is nothing but the image of her lover concealed beneath this emblem; her soul is moved with a sentiment so sweet and so pure that the most delicate woman could look at it with satisfaction, without being offended." (Quoted in L. Réau, "Greuze et la Russie," Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art-français, 1922, p. 285).

The association Greuze was making of doves with lovers has a long tradition, going back to antiquity. 0vid and Martial had often employed dove imagery in their amorous poetry. In the Christian tradition, the dove came to represent the Holy Spirit. St. Cyprian and St. Augustine associated the bird's gentleness with ideal human behavior. Evidence of the dove-lover tradition abounds in paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and even furniture mounts. It was crystallized in the classic artists' book of reference, Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (1603), in which the imagery prescribed for both Purity and Simplicity is precisely what Greuze depicted here: "a young girl, dressed in white, with a dove in her hand." (“Giovanetta, vestita di bianco, con una Colomba in mano." C. Ripa, Iconologia, New York, 1970, pp. 421, 455). Though generally assumed to have been a rube, Greuze was probably as sophisticated intellectually as any of his contemporaries. His early biographer Mme de Valoris, after all, stated that "He was educated, knew several languages." (Quoted in Munhall, 1976, p. 198).

Finally, there is the interesting element of the furniture in this Girl with a Dove. In its general composition - with the subject's legs straddling the leg of a table - the subject recalls two of Greuze's most celebrated early portraits, those of Ange-Laurent de Lalive de Jully of 1759 (illustration no.9; see Munhall, 1976, no.22) and of Claude-Henri Watelet of 1763 (illustration no. 10; see Musée du Louvre, Nouvelles acquisitions du Départment des Peintures (1980-1982), Paris, 1983, pp. 50-¬52). The furniture does as well. The historian Bill Pallot (letter to Edgar Munhall dated 7 February 2004), describes the chair the girl is seated in as a “fauteuil de bureau," with a low back and arms carved as a solid unit with the back of the chair, equating it both in form and neoclassical style with that depicted in the Lalive de Jully portrait. While the table in the latter portrait is the famous, very modern one à la grecque preserved at the Musée Condé at Chantilly, the one in the Watelet portrait and in the Girl witb a Dove is in the earlier style of André-Charles Boulle of c. 1700-10 (illustration no. 11). Pallot compares it with a pair of consoles commissioned by the comte d'Orsay around 1770 for his hotel in the rue de Varenne.

Edgar Munhall
February 2004