Lot Essay This drawing is one of those acquired directly from the artist by Ivan Ivanovich Betskoy (1704-1795), the Russian official under Catherine the Great who lived in Paris between 1756 and 1761, participating in the city’s literary and artistic life (I. Novosselskaya, ‘The Collection of Drawings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze in St Petersburg’, in E. Munhall, Greuze the Draftsman, exhib. cat., New York, The Frick Collection, and Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002, pp. 28-37). Betskoy later served as president of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg between 1764 and 1794. He bequeathed nearly seven thousand drawings to the institution he led, among them over two hundred by Greuze, bearing a number as well as the Academy’s stamp. The collection was later, in 1924, transferred to the Hermitage Museum, and a number of drawings were sold in the early 1930s in an effort of the Soviet Union to raise money. Of these, the large head studies in red chalk count as the most beautiful and important.
Greuze made these studies in the tradition of Charles Le Brun. Some were engraved by Pierre-Charles Ingouff (1746-1780) in his Têtes de différents caractères, while in 1768 a member of the French Academy, the Comte Caylus instituted a prize for têtes d’expression. Many of Greuze’s studies of this type served for figures in his paintings (see Munhall, op. cit., passim), although that does not seem to be the case here. The philosopher and critic Denis Diderot, a great admirer of Greuze, records in his review of the Salon of 1763 that Greuze ‘is enthusiastic about his art; he makes endless studies; he spares neither care nor expenses in order to have the models that suit him. If he meets a head that strikes him, he would willingly fall on his knees before the bearer of that head to attract him to his studio. He is constantly on the lookout in the streets, in churches, in markets, at the theater, on promenades, in public gatherings. When he’s thinking about a subject, he is obsessed with it, constantly preoccupied. Even his character is marked by it; he assumes that of his picture; he is brusque, sweet, insinuating, caustic, flirtatious, sad, gay, warm, serious, or mad, according to whatever he’s working on’ (quoted in Munhall, op. cit., p. 14).