The Kings Cake

<em>The Kings Cake</em>

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Title: The Kings Cake.

Author : GREUZE Jean-Baptiste (1725 - 1805)

Creation date : 1774

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 71 cm - Width 92.5 cm

Technique and other indications: oil on canvas

Storage location: Fabre museum (Montpellier) website

Contact copyright: © RMN - Grand Palais / Bulloz agency

Picture reference: 08-505488 / Inv. 836.4.27

© RMN - Grand Palais / Bulloz agency

Publication date: February 2015

University of Evry-Val d'Essonne

Historical context

In 1774, when he composed The Kings Cake, Jean-Baptiste Greuze is a renowned artist among the public. Several times celebrated by Denis Diderot who admires his "scenes of common and domestic life", he is best known for his moralistic approach through the representation of everyday scenes, such as this festive meal bringing together members of a peasant family. well-off.

Born in 1725 in Tournus, Greuze developed a passion for the arts very early on, in particular drawing. The following year, Greuze returned to Paris, where he joined the studio of Charles Joseph Natoire, member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, director of the Académie de France in Rome from 1751. Refused by the Academy as a painter of history in 1769, he multiplies genre scenes and representations of domestic life.

Greuze stands out from his masters with a painting with simple, almost austere atmospheres, in order to focus the viewer's gaze on the moral carried by the work. The themes chosen often convey a philosophy of life, around the representation of everyday scenes expressed with a realism that joins the peasant interiors painted by the three Le Nain brothers at the beginning of the 17th century.e century. This painting is part of the long series of works that feature the family, such as The Village Accord (1761), Filial Piety (1763) or even The Ungrateful Son and The Punished Son (1778).

The work is marked "JB Greuze 1774" at the bottom left. At the beginning of the XIXe century, the painting became part of the Antoine Valedau collection, before being bequeathed to join the museum collection of another collector, Baron François-Xavier Fabre.

Image Analysis

Greuze paints a peasant interior, a framework he uses in numerous compositions, probably with a link to the homes of his region of origin, the Mâconnais. The decor is simple, without being needy. Thanks to a subtle play of chiaroscuro, the dark wall contrasts with the large family table covered with a white tablecloth. Various containers, an overturned basket, pewter dishes and a cat sitting on the bench are depicted.

The peasant family is gathered around the table. The characters are dressed in beautiful costumes which confirm that this is an important day. Standing, a young girl brings a steaming soup tureen, while the other characters are turned towards the scene which unfolds in the foreground. The artist emphasizes the expressions and looks of the characters, whose faces are all bathed in light, which makes it possible to bring the scene to life in as many portraits.

The galette or cake of kings is placed on the table, in the center of the composition and guidelines. It is a puff pastry pancake, as is the tradition prevalent in the northern half of France. A portion of pancake is intentionally left aside in the dish, surely to illustrate the portion left to the poor.

In the foreground, a young boy, the youngest of the family, still has difficulty standing. He is supported by a young girl in order to "pull the kings" among the portions of cake collected by the father in a white cloth. Behind the father, seated in an armchair, her face dark and frozen, stands a young girl who cannot see the scene. Her questioning expression and the finger on her lips indicate that she is probably assigned to the designation of the person to whom the part drawn by the young boy is directed; the artist decides to represent her on the right of the painting rather than under the table, so that she fully participates in the scene. This ritual allows whoever "inherits" the bean, a small piece of porcelain that represents the Child Jesus, to become the king or queen for a day.


This moment of family harmony underlines the importance of religious festivals in the organization of Ancien Régime society, and more broadly the place of the agricultural and liturgical calendar. The Kings Cake refers to an old tradition attached to the Epiphany, a Christian holiday marking the Adoration of Jesus by the Three Wise Men. Celebrated on January 6, Kings Day belongs to the cycle of the fifty or so religious festivals that punctuate the year during the modern period. It also marks the end of the sacred period comprising Advent, Christmas and various holidays, with a time of family piety "surrounded by an atmosphere of rejoicing and tenderness" (Bernard Hours).

The religious symbol appears little in the composition, but this event, which brings together many guests (ten in total), constitutes a moment of family communion. The characters are attentive and complicit in the scene, like the boy rubbing his hands behind the father in order to emphasize his impatience. This focus on the living conditions of a peasant family gives the image of simple happiness, in connection with the hedonist philosophy of the Enlightenment which insists on virtuous human behavior and sharing in equal parts in order to keep away from corrupt actions. In this sense, the artist teaches the viewer a lesson. By insisting on the emotion and the joy of the characters, he also brings it closer to the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who is interested in the place of the child within the family circle, the feelings, the emotions and the virtues of the man.

  • peasants
  • meal
  • campaign
  • absolute monarchy


ARIÈS Philippe, DUBY Georges (dir.), History of privacy. III: from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "L’Univers historique", 1986. EHRARD Jean, EHRARD Antoinette (eds.), Diderot and Greuze, conference proceedings (Clermont-Ferrand, 1984), Clermont-Ferrand, Adosa, coll. "Textes et Documents" (no 9), 1986. HILAIRE Michel, WUHRMANN Sylvie, ZEDER Olivier (dir.), Le Goût de Diderot: Greuze, Chardin, Falconet, David ..., cat. exp. (Montpellier, Lausanne, 2013-2014), Paris, Hazan, 2013.HOURS Bernard, The Church and religious life in modern France (16th-18th century), Paris, University Press of France, coll. "First cycle", 2000.

To cite this article

Stéphane BLOND, " The Kings Cake »

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