Jean-Baptiste Greuz: fresh air for baby

On 16 July 2020, by Claire Papon

Here Jean-Baptiste Greuze illustrated a common 18th-century practice: sending newborns to a wet-nurse in the countryside for fresh air.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), Le Départ en nourrice (The Departure for the Wet-Nurse), red chalk, black chalk, pen and India ink, grey wash, white gouache highlights, 41.5 x 53 cm.
Estimate: €80,000/120,000

This work shows around 10 people gathered together to attend something resembling an event. At least at the family level. A wet-nurse, the composition’s central motif, plays the leading role, a child resting on her chest. This drawing, as well as a previous one, done in black and white pencil, which is in the Louvre Museum, and two prints, La Privation sensible (The Sensitive Deprivation) Le Retour de la nourrice (Return of the Wet-Nurse), depict a practice that was common at the time. Country life was considered healthy, so newborns were often sent away from their homes in cities. Greuze himself sent his daughter Anne-Geneviève (1762-1842) to the countryside with a wet-nurse and invited his friends the painters Pierre-Alexandre Wille and Gabriel-François Doyen to visit her together. The custom began in the 17th century and continued into the next one. Around 1760, however, it began to draw criticism.
Trained at the Paris Academy by Charles-Joseph Natoire, Greuze turned from ancient or mythological painting to family scenes with obvious moral overtones whose sentimentality won him praise from Diderot. The philosopher even deemed his Père lisant la Bible à ses enfants (Father Reading the Bible to His Children) a history painting comparable to Nicolas Poussin’s Sept sacrements (The Seven Sacraments).

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