A Social Economic Review on The Kings’ Tart
The Kings’ Tart, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1774)
The Kings’ Tart by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1774) provides us with a symbolic scene from the feast of Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day. Initially, a French cake was baked and served with a hidden pea inside of it for this feast. The person who finds the pea is declared as “the king” of the evening and had to bring the cake for the next year’s feast. Towards the end of the 19th century, the pea, la fève, hidden in the cake, was replaced with a small porcelain object. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras Festival, many Kings’ Cakes are baked during the Epiphany feasts with small baby toys hidden in them symbolizing the baby Jesus. Through a short examination, this famous Kings’ Cake can be seen in the painting. The following social and economic observations can be made through Epiphany feasts’ concepts and the original date of the painting.
Once looking at the painting, one can understand that the family portraited was not within the nobility. By focusing on the background, the absence of the wallpaper and the old walls with an ordinary dining set unfolds how wealthy the family is, which is not much. The head of the family sits on a fancy black chair, which is different than others. Finally, right in the middle of the painting and the table, there is a last piece of the tart. Most of the family members in the painting look at this last piece keenly, even though most of them still have and had their own piece of tart. According to the tradition of the Epiphany, this last piece is called “the share of God” and saved in the end for a poor guest.
The painting was finished in 1774, which was the previous year of the Flour War, which is composed of several riots in the spring of 1775 and considered a passage to the French Revolution. The king was responsible for supplying his subordinates, peasants, with bread. Due to the 1774’s harvest not being enough with already existing flour supplies, a rise in the bread prices got ahead of this responsibility. Hence, peasants without their main food supply rebelled against the regime. When zoomed in to the white bundle of cloth the man holding, chunks of bread can be seen in his hands. The household ignores the bowl with steams above it that the boy is holding on the upper right corner, thus presumed a lack of nutritious food supply. With the last piece of Kings’ Cake on the table and the forgotten apples on the floor, the only supply of food are the bread pieces.
The shortage of food supply is obvious. According to François Quesnay’s the Tableau Économique (1758), agriculture supplied raw material to the industry, while industry supplied agriculture with money and equipment . The peasants’ gainings covered just the amount of their living costs since most of the income was given to the landlords as rents. That caused a small change in bread prices to create that much of a reaction in 1775. In France, people with soil to till got wealthy while other classes were affected conversely, causing economic inequality, eventually leading to the French Revolution. Quesnay proposed taxation on landlords to avoid this inequality. The landlords are the final stop of production as spenders of all the produced goods while contributing nothing to the whole process.
The work of Quesnay was further extended in the works, such as the theory of price, of Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, who was Louis XVI’s Controller and General of Finances during the earlier mentioned Flour War. Turgot overcame the riots by setting fixed prices to suppliers and serving the affected population with the food supplies from the wealth of the palace. Another review about this painting can be done through Denis Diderot. In his work Encyclopédie (1752), Diderot expressed his belief about the government’s main interest, which is its own people’s well-being. In the light of the previous events mentioned above, such as the French Revolution and the Flour War, the reality was far away from Diderot’s belief. Not so surprisingly, his work and belief were rejected by many, including Anne Robert Jacques Turgot.
A general final look at the painting can show the effect of the Epiphany feast can be interpreted as a brief moment of joy in a period of distress among the common people’s daily lives or a distraction from the existing social structure causing them the distress all along.
- Quesnay, F. (1758). Tableau Économique.
- Diderot, D. (1752). Encyclopédie.
- Kurz, H.D. (2016). Economic Thought: A Brief History. Columbia University Press.
- Tsoulfidis, L. (2010). Competing Schools of Economic Thought. Springer.
 Kurz, H.D. (2016). Economic Thought: A Brief History. Columbia University Press.
 Tsoulfidis, L. (2010). Competing Schools of Economic Thought. Springer.