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


18 Comments to “Marguerite Gérard, painter in 1789”

  1. Clarice says:

    She have really beautiful skills^^
    But do you know where i find the picture from the promotion-poster in a good quality? Without the pink letter on it?

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    Alas, Clarice, I was unable to find one! I am not too fond of the bright pink lettering myself… but it is part of the poster, and reproductions of Marguerite’s portraits are awfully hard to find.

  3. Clarice says:

    Well i was searching too and i have the problems like you. What a pity. :S You find on the net a lot of her works, but this one just in this “poster-version”. Sadly i´m back in Germany and not able to see the exhibition to find these picture there for to make a own photo.
    But it would be nice if you will let me know, when you find it later maybe. ;) I will do the same. ;)

  4. Penny says:

    Definitely better looking here than in the email I was sent. yes, it is disappointing that more was not on display. I like what I see. thanks so much for teaching me about French artists. it certainly cheers me up from my sick bed.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    I hope it helps you feel better, Penny!

  6. Sheramy says:

    Wonderful post! Catherine, you are an art historian at heart, admit it. :-) I went to the Cognacq-Jay for the first time back in May: a lovely museum. Too bad about that pink horror on the poster, though — bad graphic design!

    I think it’s wonderful that female painters besides Vigee-Lebrun from that period are getting more attention. There’s a new book out about Adelaide Labille-Guiard that I really want to read.

  7. Ellen Moody says:

    They’re all very genre-like scenes, women’s scenes (motherhood, with children, teaching children), opulent but recognizably Netherlandish in feel.

    I’ve never posted about her on our small eighteenth century list.

    Ellen

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Ah, Sheramy, you hit a sore spot. Yes, I would have loved to be an art historian. Fortunately this blog allows me to talk about painters and paintings. You are quite right: Vigee-Lebrun’s fame has eclipsed all of her fellow female painters. Labille-Guiard is particularly interesting in that she was a Court painting who transitioned to painting revolutionary figures, such as Robespierre and Madame Roland. If you have the reference of that book, I would be very interested.

    Ellen, indeed everyone seems to omit Marguerite Gerard. This is why we have to forgive this exhibition’s shortcomings, narrow focus, patronizing subtitle, atrocious poster, etc. and give it credit for (somewhat) rescuing Gerard from oblivion.

  9. Lee says:

    I enjoyed my visit here, the art is beautiful. Your book sounds compelling.
    Lee

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Lee. I am delighted you enjoyed your visit here. Please come back!

  11. Sheramy says:

    Hi Catherine,
    Laura Auricchio is the author of the book (I think I spelled that correctly). She wrote her dissertation about Labille-Guiard. Her book is really short, though, compared to what a dissertation would be, so I don’t know what is up to that. I haven’t seen the actual dissertation.

  12. I’m so sorry to miss this exhibition. I have seen the Angora Cat painting before – but never knew the background (or even the artist). I would have enjoyed seeing more of her work.

    Very interesting post!

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Sheramy, for the info!

    Tristan, yes, the exhibition is definitely worth a visit!

  14. M Buvat de Virginy says:

    I saw this exhibit a few weeks ago, well-worth it but I had some disappointments. Also, I couldn’t help but think of the poster for the 2006 Marie-Antoinette with its bold pink lettering when I see this exhibit’s.

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed! This poster seems to garner unanimous votes… I wonder about this “shocking pink” mania applied to the 18th century. I guess it is eye-catching in its ugliness.

  16. Laura says:

    Hi,

    I was delighted to see my new book on Labille-Guiard mentioned here — with my name absolutely spelled correctly! Thanks!

    The book is Adelaide Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009).

    It is indeed a brief book, but it is also (thanks to the talent of the artist and the generosity of the Getty) a beautiful one with many color plates. The brevity does, however, keep the cost down — it’s less than $25 at Amazon.

    With many thanks for your interest!
    Laura Auricchio

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Laura – Art historians are always welcome here, and I try not to mangle any names… I am going to purchase your book and post a review. I find Labille-Guiard fascinating in many regards.

  18. Penny says:

    i forgot to mention i love this painting of the woman with her pet. when my arm and head stop hurting i am going to print it for my dining room and definitely print the one of the drama queen.
    again thanks for enlightening my life