|François Dumont, 1751-1831|
Portrait of Marguerite Gérard, age 32
Many of her paintings were lost, others were attributed to other painters, and most of her known works are held in private collections. Even now, when women art historians are taking interest in women painters of the past, very little has been written about her, and the few articles on the internet are contradictory.
Unlike her female contemporaries Anne Vallayer-Coster, who excelled at still life, or Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, and Adelaide Labille-Guiard, who were recognized for their portraiture—both considered minor fields of painting—Marguerite excelled in genre painting, an area previously reserved for men. She generally depicted small groups of full-length figures in detailed settings, interacting as in a scene from a melodrama. Her signature style featured painstakingly accurate details rendered with subtly blended brush strokes, in the manner of Dutch genre painters of the previous century.
Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1666
National Gallery of Ireland / Wikimedia
What made Marguerite's work unique was that she applied meticulous technique to intimate and informal scenes of bourgeois women in domestic settings. Although she never married or raised a family, she specialized in tender scenes of mothers caring for their children. Because of this unique contribution to the development of art, Marguerite is considered the equal of Labille-Guiard and Vigée-Lebrun, and in treating the humble subject of motherhood, she anticipated the work of Mary Cassatt.
It could be that her treatment of motherhood and other feminine activities is one reason that her work was so quickly forgotten. While this type of painting was easy to sell, it did not garner respect among historians, who preferred grander and more imposing subjects.
Another factor that makes her work seem unimportant, in comparison to that of her contemporaries, is that she tended to work on a small scale. Her works are seldom over 2 feet tall, and frequently even smaller. Small, portable canvases were easier to sell than the huge canvases required by the more prestigious history paintings, but they are harder to appreciate.
She also produced a number of small portraits that are notable for their casual and intimate look; these may have been intended as gifts for the sitters. It is easy to discount these works, but they are quite advanced in their snapshot-like spontaneity and loose, visible brush-strokes.
Background: Marguerite was originally from Grasse, where her father was a perfume distiller. She was the youngest of 7 children.
When Marguerite was 14, her mother died, and Marguerite went to live with her sister’s family in Paris. This was the stroke of luck that enabled her to develop her talent. Her sister, a painter of miniatures, was married to one of the foremost French Rococo painters, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, then at the height of his career, in the 1770s. The Fragonard family had artists' lodgings in the Louvre, which gave Marguerite ready access to the great artworks of the past.
The Swing, 1767
Wallace Collection / Wikimedia
Visit to the Nursery, 1775
National Gallery, D.C. / Internet
Training: Marguerite soon became Fragonard's pupil; he taught her painting, drawing and printmaking. After a few years, teacher and student worked together on several engravings and a few paintings.
She was offered a spot at the Royal Academy, but turned it down. This is hard to understand, since training at the Royal Academy was generally an essential stepping stone to success. It could be that she didn't want to be associated with royalty in any way.
Career: Unlike her more famous contemporaries, Marguerite was not a court painter. She drew her patrons from the wealthy and educated middle class. Because of this, she was not threatened by the Revolution and her career continued undisturbed. Her career flourished after the revolution, and after the Salons were opened to women in the 1790s, she exhibited her work regularly. She exhibited 42 paintings at the Salons between 1799 and 1824, and won 3 medals. Moreover, her works were purchased by both Napoleon and Louis XVII.
Although her talent may have been equal to that of Labille-Guiard and Vigée-Lebrun, it appears that her ambition was much more modest. She didn't push herself to prominence or attempt to compete for the most prestigious clients; it seems she was content to paint pictures of the world of women for sale to upper-class women.
Private life: Marguerite never married, and she lived her entire life with her sister's family in their apartment at the Louvre. Scholars strongly disagree about her relationship with her brother-in-law, Jean Fragonard. One angrily accuses her of adultery, and therefore, of hypocrisy in her depictions of loving mothers. Another avers that this accusation has been thoroughly disproven. While revering Fragonard as a teacher and mentor, Marguerite always spoke of him as a father figure. He was about 43 when she came to live with her sister at the age of 14.
It appears that she didn't marry because she wanted to devote herself to making art. I imagine that as a member of the Fragonard circle, she had sufficient financial independence that she didn't need to rely on a man's support.
My photos of Marguerite's work:
|The Hussar and his Family, c. 1800|
23" by 19"
Denver / Jan's photo, 2012
|Marguerite Gérard and Jean-Honoré Fragonard|
The Angora Cat, 1780s
25 1/2 inches by 21 inches
Munich / Internet
The Piano Lesson, 1787
|First Steps, c. 1788|
17" tall by 21 " wide
Hermitage / Internet
|Portrait of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, date unknown|
8.6 in by 6.3 in
|Portrait of Doctor François Thiery, c. 1789|
oil on wood
8 1/4 by 6 1/4 inches
Resnick Collection / Internet
|The Beloved Child, 1790|
23 3/4 in by 28 3/4 in
Hillwood Estate / Internet
|Artist Painting a Portrait of a Musician, c. 1803|
24" by 20 1/2"
Hermitage / Internet
|Reading the Letter, no date|
Cherbourg / Wikimedia
|Good News, c. 1804|
25" x 22"
|Bad News, 1804|
24 in by 20 in
Louvre / Internet
|The Clemency of Napoleon, c. 1806|
|The Duchess of Montebello with her Children, 1814|
Artist age: 53
102" by 71" (9 ft tall)
Private Collection / Internet
|The Young Sketcher, 1821|
Age of Artist: 60
24" by 20"
Private Collection / Internet