Marguerite Gérard, painter in 1789

Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837) is remembered, when she is remembered at all, as the sister-in-law, student and collaborator of the great Jean-Honoré Fragonard. She was also an extremely successful painter in her own right, to the point where her fame eclipsed that of her brother-in-law from the 1780s on. Then after her death Mademoiselle Gérard fell into oblivion – where she mostly remains to this day.

Marguerite Gerard exhibition

Marguerite Gerard exhibition

This is why this exhibition at the tiny Musée Cognacq-Jay, in the historic Marais district of Paris, is so welcome. Alas, it was not the retrospective I had hoped for.

Certainly the exhibition does an excellent job of retracing the artist’s career as a portraitist. Marguerite arrived in Paris from her native Provence at the age of fourteen to join her elder sister Marie-Anne, and the latter’s husband, Fragonard, then at the height of his fame. The Fragonards (Marie-Anne herself was a miniaturist) noticed the young woman’s early gift, and tutored her as a painter.

Soon Marguerite had her own patrons. Before the Revolution they were fellow painters like Hubert Robert, musicians like Grétry, architects. No royalty, no Marie-Antoinette, no aristocrats, but educated, wealthy bourgeois. Marguerite Gérard was no Court painter.

This may explain the small, intimate size of the portraits, barely larger than miniatures, such as the one used for the exhibition poster. Marguerite always included as her trademark a guéridon, a small pedestal table, clearly visible in this portrait of an architect and his family.

Marguerite Gerard 1778 portrait

Marguerite Gerard 1778 portrait

Before the Revolution Mademoiselle Gérard lived at the Louvre apartment occupied by her sister and brother-in-law. Together they received in 1782 the visit of the Comte et Comtesse du Nord, aliases of the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, future Tsar Paul I, and his wife Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna.

But times and tastes were already changing, and Fragonard’s fame was waning as Marguerite’s star was rising. Her “semi-miniature” portraits only increased in popularity during the Revolution and Napoléon’s reign. The exhibition displays her images of the same bourgeois as before, now sporting tricolor cockades or ribbons.

We have few likenesses of Marguerite Gérard (one, by Dumont, not displayed in this exhibition, is at the Wallace Collection in London.) I am not aware of any self-portraits.

Yet the exhibition shows two exquisite sketches. Here (right) is Marguerite as a young girl, probably shortly after her arrival in Paris .

This was long thought to be the work of Fragonard, but modern scholars now agree that his characteristic boldness is missing.

I have my own idea about the identity of the author, admittedly based on nothing more than my own intuition. I can’t help thinking that Marie-Anne Fragonard might have sketched the delicate features of her much younger sister.

Marguerite Gerard portrait by Fragonard

Marguerite Gerard portrait by Fragonard

And then we have this later drawing (below), this time certainly by Fragonard himself. The likeness of an assured, bold young artist.

But something is almost entirely missing from this exhibition: Marguerite Gérard’s more ambitious work. We only get to see her Angora Cat (left) which, according to the exhibition curators, she painted à quatre mains with Fragonard. It is inspired by Dutch interior scenes of the 17th century, as attested in particular by the use of the convex mirror. It reflects of course the young woman in the pale yellow dress and the cat, but also, if you look carefully, three painters at work: Fragonard, his wife Marie-Anne and sister-in-law Marguerite.

This is the source of my disappointment. Certainly, better this exhibition than none at all, but its reductionist approach (candidly announced by its subtitle: In Fragonard’s Studio) is frustrating. And why 1789? The works exhibited date from before and after the Revolution, which does not seem to have disrupted or directly impacted Marguerite’s career.

But it did put an abrupt end to that of Fragonard. His aristocratic patrons were exiled, impoverished or guillotined, and his style seemed hopelessly passé in revolutionary or post-revolutionary Paris.

Marguerite, at the same time, continued to thrive as an artist. She eschewed political themes, and often painted scenes of domestic life centering on women and children. These I would have loved to see.

So maybe, in a necessarily modest and limited fashion, I will post my own Marguerite Gérard retrospective on this blog one of these days…

Until December 6, 2009 at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris.

See also this follow-up.

Marguerite Gerard The angora cat

Marguerite Gerard The angora cat

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