The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

The Broken Jug by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1771)

This is my second painting featuring the artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the first being on June 28th.  However today’s painting is very different in comparison to my first offering.

Greuze was born in Tournus, a Burgundian town on the banks of the River Saône in 1725, the sixth of nine children.  He came from a prosperous middle-class background and studied painting in Lyon in the late 1740’s under the successful portrait painter, Charles Grandon.   At the age of twenty-five, Greuze moved to Paris where he entered the Royal Academy as a student.  During this period he developed a style of painting which was described as Sentimental art or Sentimentality.     I believe we could define sentimentality as an emotional disposition that idealizes its object for the sake of emotional gratification and that it is inherently corrupt because it is grounded in cognitive and moral error. Sentimental art can thus be defined as art that, whether or not by design, evokes a sentimental response.

Greuze was accepted as an Associate member of the Academy after he submitted three of his paintings A Father Reading the Bible to His Family, the Blindman Deceived and The Sleeping Schoolboy.    These three works were about life amongst working class folk and were moralising pictorial stories and, in some ways, are reminiscent of the works by William Hogarth some two decades earlier.  It was Hogarth’s genre of art that depicted scenes from the lives of ordinary citizens and which were calculated to teach a moral lesson.

Greuze was pleased to have achieved admission to the prestigious Academy but he wanted more.  He wanted to be recognised as a historical painter.  From the 17th century, Art Academies of Europe had formalised a hierarchy of figurative art and the French Académie royale de peinture et de sculpturehad a central role in this listing.  According to them this was the hierarchical order, with the most prestigious at the top:

History Painting

(including narrative religious mythological and allegorical subjects)

Portrait Painting

Genre painting

 or scenes of everyday life


Animal painting

Still Life


In 1789 he put forward his work, Septimius Severus Reproaching Caracalla, as a history painting but it was rejected by the Academy as they considered him to be a “mere genre painter”.    The Academy did not consider his works fell into the category of historical paintings and this rebuff so annoyed Greuze that he refused to submit any more of his works for the Academy’s exhibitions.  The fact that the Academy downgraded his works did not in any way affect their popularity with the public who couldn’t get enough of these “sentimental” paintings and the sale of his works continued strongly.  In fact, the sales of his works were so popular that the money kept pouring in and so Greuze had no more need to exhibit his works at the Academy.

During the late eighteenth century in France, Rococo art thrived and the likes of Fragonard, Watteau and Boucher had almost taken over the French art scene.  It was all the rage with its mythological and allegorical themes in pastoral settings and its elegant and sometimes sensuous depictions of aristocratic frivolity.  At the time, this brand of light-hearted, and now and again erotic works, were much in demand with wealthy patrons.  So in some ways the French art world received a shock when Greuze’s pompously moralising rural dramas on canvas countered the frivolity of the artificial world of Rococo art.

The majority of Greuze’s later works consisted of titillating paintings of young girls.  His paintings contained thinly disguised sexual suggestions under the surface appearance of over-sentimental innocence.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today entitled The Broken Jug is a classic example of this style of art.  In the picture we see a three-quarter length portrait of a young girl.  She has blue eyes, light hair, pink cheeks, very red lips, and her dress is white. She still exudes the innocence of childhood but we need to look closer at this portrait.   How old do you think she is?  Look closely at her facial expression.  What can you read into it?  Do you think she looks serious?  Do you think there is a slight look of alarm in her eyes?  Is there a look of sadness in her expression?  What has happened?

Look at the way she is dressed.  It looks as if it was a special dress for a special occasion, look at the flowers in her hair, maybe she has just returned from a party, but why are her dress and her appearance so dishevelled?  On her arm she carries a pitcher which is broken but she has not discarded it.  She clings lovingly to it.  It must have been a prized possession of hers and maybe she hopes to be able to remedy the break.  How did it break?  Was she running away from something and tripped, breaking the pitcher, which may explain her dishevelled appearance.  Maybe her worry is based on how she is going to explain away the breaking of the pitcher to her parents and pleading that it was a simple accident and beyond her control.  Is it as simple as this?

Let me suggest another possibility to this story.   I am not convinced this is all about a broken pitcher.  Let us consider an alternative theory.  Look at her dishevelled appearance.  Look at her silk scarf adorned with a rose which has lost some of its petals.  See how the scarf has been dragged down and is now no longer wrapped around her slender neck.  Look how the top of her dress has been pulled down exposing her left breast and nipple.  Look how she struggles to gather up flowers in the folds of her dress.  Has she been involved in a struggle with a lover and the tryst has got out of hand?   Is her beloved broken pitcher just an allegory and this is not about a broken jug at all but it is about her broken hymen and the loss of her virginity and the fear of telling her parents what has happened?

Could The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze be alluding to loss of virginity or am I reading something into this painting which does not exist?

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

19 thoughts on “The Broken Pitcher by Jean-Baptiste Greuze”

  1. Absolutely correct. The painting is about loss of virginity. The young woman has a look of regret. Her dress is suggestively disarrayed. Her hands are weakly guarding her, but too late. She is dressed for a formal occasion. But something has gone wrong and forever changed her.

    This picture so captured the sadness of the event that I was shocked when I first saw it in 1963. Since then, I have read many comments on this painting, all of them assuming that it was only about broken pottery.

  2. I completely agree. Take a look at William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting by the same name; this appears to be a repeated theme in French works.

  3. Great site, I agree with your interpretation but i have a question that your knowledge may be able to answer. There is a broken pitcher painting of a girl with her hands in her lap in the shape of a v. I it is infamous, but i cannot recall the artist. Im doing a dissertation, i need the artists name.You would not know it , would you?.

    1. “Cherry Ripe” by Sir John Everett Millais 1879 I have an old 3 paneled frame with a mirror in the center that is flanked by the two prints.

      1. If you look at the pitcher there is a portion of darkness on the light surface of it which indicates a hole has been made in it when it broke

  4. Edward Lucie-Smith talks about this (albeit briefly) in “Censoring the BODY”… The Pigtails in Painting blog also has a good on virginity symbolism.

  5. I also think it is about lost virginity. I would even go so far as to say the young girl was raped. Did any of you also notice the fountain behind her? To me it represents evil, as in demonic…which rape would be.

  6. I believe that the picture is a reference to Louis the XV’s infamous Parc aux Cerfs, where he brought many young — some very young — girls for an evening’s debauch.
    Note the ram/satyr head and the royal lion’s head spouting in the background (a reference to ejaculation?). The painting was completed a few years before Louis’s death, so Greuze’s moral lesson necessarily has to be conveyed through symbols.

  7. I bought a copy of this painting forty some years ago it hung on my bedroom mantel I looked at it more than any other painting in my home. I think it’s exactly as you say. The fountain head I always thought of as evil in her past also.

  8. I would be interested in your opinions of another picture that seems to me to contain highly erotic imagery but I can’t find that any art critic has ever thought the same. It’s in the London National Gallery, and is a German Renaissance altarpiece called ‘St Peter & St Dorothy’ ( ). My suspicion is that the painter had Protestant leanings and was having a laugh at the patron’s expense.

  9. I have a bronze statuette that portrays this that has at late 1700’s date on it. Could it be worth anything? Or museum worthy?

  10. The symbolisn of the broken pitcher? Puberty. I have always admired this picture, as the portrayal of a maiden goddess of fertility.

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