A little boy or girl leans on a cushion holding an apple. The child is positioned in the extreme foreground of the picture before a dark blank background, the closeness to us creating a sense of immediacy. The intense gaze of the glistening blue eyes and slightly parted lips – which Greuze has painted with great care – give the child an air of thoughtful melancholy, as well as slight unease. This is not a portrait, but a genre painting of a general type. Children shown with apples must have been a popular theme as Greuze painted lots of them. These single heads were quite profitable as they didn't take long to complete.
Such images of children reflect a growing interest in and a changing, more sentimental, perception of childhood in France at this time, with a new fashion for children of wealthy families to be raised by their own mothers rather than servants.
A young child leans on a cushion holding an apple. It is not clear if it is a girl or a boy. The longish hair, delicate rosy cheeks and full, red lips suggest it might be a girl and the white cloth around the shoulders resembles a fichu – the shawl worn by little girls. However, fichus were usually made of lighter, transparent material while this one is opaque. A closely similar but apparently more finished version of this painting by Greuze in the Detroit Institute of Arts is titled A Boy with an Apple. These paintings are not portraits of a specific child but genre paintings, representing a general type.
The child is positioned in the extreme foreground of the picture before a dark blank background, the closeness to us creating a sense of immediacy. The colours of the cushion complement the child’s blue and white clothing. Greuze built up the white cloth around the child’s shoulders with vibrant brushstrokes, leaving visible his modelling of the folds. He made changes directly on the canvas while painting – for example, above the child’s left shoulder. Brushstrokes can also be seen in the child’s face where the paint layer is quite thin. The intense gaze of the glistening blue eyes and slightly parted lips – which Greuze has painted with great care – give the child an air of thoughtful melancholy, as well as slight unease. The painting was once also called ‘Enfant boudeur’, meaning ‘Sulking Child’. It is sketchier and has a less polished quality than other works by Greuze, such as A Girl. However, it is probably finished but just painted quickly. Such single heads were quite profitable as they didn't take Greuze long to complete.
A drawing by Greuze of 1777 in a private collection represents a slightly older boy with similar chin shape, wavy hair, wide eyes, full lips and troubled look, who also seems to appear in the Wallace Collection’s painting Head of a Boy of about 1782. He may be the same model as in our painting, but represented a few years later. The child’s eyes in the Wallace Collection picture are brown, whereas they are blue in our one. This might be because Greuze was using a type that he repeated again and again, to which he made slight alterations to ensure variety in his work.
The partly ripe apple probably once appeared greener, and may have been included to suggest the child’s young age and innocence. We are not entirely sure why it now appears blue, but it is likely that a yellow lake pigment originally mixed with the blue has faded. Children shown with apples must have been a popular theme as Greuze painted lots of pictures of them, including his Child with an Apple of about 1779 (The National Trust, Upton House). Such images of children may reflect a growing interest in and a changing perception of childhood in France at this time, with a number of children in more privileged households being raised by their own mothers rather than servants, and an increasing emphasis on early education. The mixed blessings of more maternal involvement in the raising of children are depicted in An Interior Scene.
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