62 x 51 cm. (247⁄16 x 20 1⁄16 in.)
Oil on canvas.
Signed lower left.
• Purchased by the Société des Amis des Arts.
• Private Collection. Great Britain.
• Acquired 1904 by Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain (1852-1929), Brussels.
• By Bequest until now, Belgium
1808, Salon, no 254.
At the very end of the Ancien Régime in 1789, the very prestigious Parisian Salon only welcomed three women painters, the Academicians Mmes. Lebrun, Guiard, et Vallayer-Coster. The day after the Revolution, the admission rules were History. Thus, while Anne Vallayer-Coster and Adélaide Labille-Guiard remained present but had difficulty attracting a new clientele, and if Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun continued to send in paintings from exile, the Salon opened wide to women citizen artists. By 1791, more than twenty exhibited their works, and thirty-three in 1793. If some painted as dilettantes and only sought a little bit of glory, the others were accomplished professional artists, happy finally to be able to occupy the position that was by rights theirs. Such was the case for Pauline Auzou, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Marie-Gabrielle Capet, Constance-Marie Charpentier, Constance Mayer, and Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux.
In 1799, Marguerite Gérard participated in the Salon for the first time, after almost twenty years of a full happy career. Born in Grasse in 1761, she was the daughter of the parfumer Claude Gérard and sister of Marie-Anne, the painter and miniaturist who married Jean-Honoré Fragonard in 1769 and settled with him in the Louvre. Not long after, Marguerite joined them to be trained in the family studio. Only three years after her arrival in Paris, she produced her first etchings after Fragonard’s drawings, before being given responsibility for realizing parts of his canvases, such as the draperies in The Bad News, and executing second versions of his compositions.
In the company of her sister and brother-in-law, Gérard learned to master several techniques and adopted Fragonard’s taste for the finesse of Ter Borch and de Mieris genre paintings, with their smooth handling, loving description of materials, and elegant play of light and shadows. The artist’s style, initially strongly marked by her master’s, even more so in works executed together, broke free in the 1780’s. Alone, she took up the same subjects - reading, the lesson, the letter, children, the cat and dog – but handled them differently, with polished colors, not very bright light, and delightful attention to detail. Her charming cabinet pictures show young women dressed “in the Spanish fashion” in more or less Dutch-style interiors, as well as small intimate portraits which won over a varied, international clientele and were diffused through engravings. Nonetheless, as opposed to other women artists who were recognized at the time and in spite of her fame, Gérard hardly benefited from the protection of the royal family and never tried to enter the Academy.
While the Revolution made it possible for many feminine talents to come forth and blossom, it threw the habitual circles of collectors into confusion, profoundly modified the expectations of the public, and introduced new themes. Thanks to the loyalty of her foreign clients and the success of her portraits, but also to her unfailing attachment to new ideas, Marguerite Gérard’s career did not suffer any rupture. Although she was absent until 1799 from the first revived Salons, she exhibited at the Society of Friends of Arts founded by Charles de Wailly in 1790 and took part in the competition of Year II (1794) with The Heroine of Saint Milhier, her only truly revolutionary painting. For the rest and from then on, family, happy motherhood, and the innocent feelings of young girls with irreproachable morals and clothed in Directory dresses constituted the core of her pictorial production in keeping with the grand ideological debates of the time.
In 1808, in his Report on the Fine Arts presented to the session of the State Council on March 5th, 1808, Joachim le Breton, Perpetual Secretary of the Class of the Fine Arts of the Institute, recognized Marguerite Gérard’s fame in placing her in the ranks of the glories of 18th century women painters with Vigée-Lebrun, Labille-Guiard, and Vallayer-Coster (p. 81). Covered in honors, the artist sent three pictures to the Salon that year: The Clemency of His Majesty the Emperor in Berlin; A Young Girl Near her Sick Mother, Prays God for the Recuperation of her Health; and A Young Woman Who Just Received a Letter from Her Spouse (nos 252-254).
The last work is the one we present. Marguerite Gérard returns to the Dutch-style motifs and warmer shades of her youth which once again were admired by a society in the process of renewing the pomp of the Ancien Régime. It would appear, however, that that was not the artist’s initial intention. In fact, under the young woman’s low neckline can be distinguished a pentimento corresponding to the high waistline typical of Greek-style gowns.
The scene takes place in a small study. A woman is standing and reading a letter while caressing a small dog. Near her, a man of a certain age is seated. Compass in hand, he leans on the large globe of the world under which a cat is stretched out. The two protagonists wear clothes inspired by the 17th century, namely the man’s black jacket with a large collar and cuffs in lace, and the maiden’s light grey satin dress with its wide sleeves and marked waistline. With great subtlety, the Caspar Netscher type ambience is embellished with an Empire armchair, the study’s wood paneling dissimulating library cupboards, and the woman’s face with the beauty of an antique statue. Our work thus skillfully combines the memory of the gracious Present of 1788 with the aesthetics and porcelain handling of more recent compositions, such as Good News exhibited in the Salon of 1804.
As is often the case with Gérard, the figures evolve in silence and do not interact very much, a fact which would make the subject hard to decipher without the description in the Salon Livret. We understand that the young woman reads a letter from her beloved whose miniature is inset in the medallion she wears on her bosom. But nothing indicates he is her husband. Similarly, the man could be taken for a preceptor who is waiting for his student to end her reading, and he doesn’t seem the least interested in the globe. The lengthy title removes all ambiguity, but in reality, the precise situation is of little importance, because it is simply a pretext for a pleasant, melancholy scene enveloped in oppositions between light and shade, the shimmer of the pearly grey satin, and the depth of the black velvet, the little dog’s energy – symbol of fidelity, the dog is also inherited from Fragonard – and the cat’s calmness. It is difficult, then, to follow certain scholars who wished to see this painting as an explicit allusion to Napoleonic campaigns and the distancing of husbands who have left to fight for the Emperor. Far from the political preoccupations of her time, Marguerite Gérard continues to reinvent and idealise the Dutch Golden Age here, by depicting the sweet sensuality of privacy where contemplative silence and poetic reverie reign.
Jeanne DOIN, “Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837),”Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1912, vol. VIII, p. 445, n. 1.
Kathryn CALLEY, A Family Paradigm in French Painting: 1789-1814, p. 71.
Carole BLUMENFELD et Axel HEMERY, Petits théâtres de l’intime. La peinture de genre française entre Révolution et Restauration, exh. cat. Toulouse, Augustinian Museum, 2011, p. 32, fig. 7.
Carole BLUMENFELD, Marguerite Gérard. 1761-1837, Paris, Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2019, pp. 141-142, 237, no 200 P, repr. p. 143.