The Hermit is set in a rocky landscape, where the central figure, an elderly Capuchin friar, sits distributing rosaries to large group of girls and young women. Despite its being outdoors, the scene teems with figures crowded into a narrow space between a stream in the foreground and the higher ground behind. The small patch of sky at the right is dominated by a large, plain cross. The girls are bringing food to the hermit – a basket of eggs, a live chicken – and in return he is giving them rosaries and votary medals, which he takes from a box held by a handsome young friar. The girls are dressed in ordinary gowns, apart from the two closest to the hermit who are all in white; they are receiving rosaries from him in preparation for their confirmation.
The theme is one of charity, generosity and virtue: the young women are taking physical care of the hermit and he, in return, is giving them spiritual rewards. The large number of figures involved in the narrative allow Greuze ample opportunity to do what he does best: describe the physical and moral character of the actors in his drama. In doing so he presents a series of opposites: adolescence and old age, female and male, fair and grizzled. The hermit, despite his age, is both spiritually and physically dominant. He is a very large figure, who, if he were standing, would tower over the girls. His hands are twice the size of those of the girl receiving the rosary and she submits obediently to his gesture. In type the old man has little in common with the good but rather weak father figures in many of Greuze’s domestic dramas. Instead his thick beard and downward gaze resemble those of Papinian, the powerful and virtuous Prefect of the Praetorian Guard in the morceau de réception that Greuze presented to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Septimus Severus Reproaching Caracalla, of 1769, in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Immediately next to the hermit kneels the delicate and somewhat effete young friar, and the contrast between the two could not be greater. The girls who have come to visit the hermit range in age from about eight years old until well into adolescence. Some are quite shy, some watch him with rapt attention, while others appear awestruck and almost frightened by him. In the trio at the left, an element of coyness slips in as well, as the two companions drag the middle girl closer to the old friar.
Greuze made a number of preparatory drawings for the present work; one of the Hermit himself is preserved in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. On the recto is a quickly but powerfully drawn study of the whole figure and on the verso a more detailed working out of the folds of his robe – though this was modified again in the finished work. The picture is painted rather broadly, the pigment swiftly applied. The background and most of the drapery is rather dark, but Greuze adds brighter flesh tones and lighter garments to add rhythm and focus. The central point of the composition is the hermit reaching out to drape the rosary over the wrist of the waiting girl. As James Thompson so aptly describes it, “she is the culminating cross in a living rosary of girls linked by limbs enacting extravagant expressions of emotion and affection.”3
1. See Literature, E. Munhall, 1964, p. 3. He refers to Diderot's Salon of 1763, in which he implies that Greuze had created a new genre of painting.
2. See Literature, C.B. Bailey, 2002, p. 101.
3. See Literature, J. Thompson, 1989/90, p. 36.
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