Broken Eggs

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Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Broken Eggs, 1756

Upon his first meeting with Cosette, Monsieur Gillenormand can’t help but exclaims, “How pretty she is! She is a Greuze.” This reference of Greuze in Les Misérables clearly demonstrates the acknowledged touching quality of his paintings, as if bringing up the artist’s name immediately provokes an image of a misty-eyed, love-craving teenage girl.

Truthfully, Greuze did his fair amount of teen girl portraits. Unlike the fellow painters of his time, Fragonard and Hubert Robert, Greuze devoted himself in the picturesque details of the contemporary life of ordinary people, rather than indulging in the ancient art and brilliance of the Renaissance. Genre paintings, a term that arose in 18th century France to describe painters who, like Greuze, specialized in elimination of idealization and focusd on the rudimentary conponents of life. And what’s a better example of daily life than broken eggs? 

Finished in 1756, the time when Greuze first rose to fame, Broken Eggs presents a moral teaching to all. A young woman dressed in working-class clothes sits at the lower left, again looking sad and embarrassed; besides her a basket sits of broken eggs. The middle figure, a young man dressed in fancy attire tries to get to the woman, but he is being held angrily by what appears to be the girl’s mother. Then we recognize a naughty boy on far right, who completes the compositional triangle of the other figures. 

The broken eggs on the floor suggest the impossibility of repairing what’s broken, hinting the girl’s lost virginity. The mother looks aggressive and angry, threatening the young man to take responsibility of he has done. The man, on the other hand, does not seem that he’s going in a bloody fight with the mother, rather he shows a determination to fix the situation. This strikes a similarity even 250 years later, when people still try to restore the innocence that’s already lost, or deal with the consequences of irreparable actions. Greuze, the moral compass of 18th century French art, here, teaches us an important lesson - what’s broken is broken. 

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