Gérard, Marguerite (1761–1837)
Gérard, Marguerite (1761–1837)
French artist who was the first woman in her country to succeed as a genre painter. Name variations: Marguerite Gerard. Born in Grasse, France, in 1761; died in Paris, France, in 1837; sister of Marie Anne Fragonard (1745–c. 1823); studied with Jean Honoré Fragonard, her brother-in-law; never married; no children.
The daughter of a perfume maker and purportedly one of 17 children, Marguerite Gérard was eight years old when she went to Paris to live with her sister Marie Anne Fragonard , a miniaturist who was married to the artist Jean Honoré Fragonard. As a member of the Fragonard household, Marguerite was informally apprenticed to one of France's greatest masters, welcomed into his menage at the Louvre, and given access to the outstanding private art collections of the day. Able to devote herself completely to her work, she ultimately became a successful genre painter, even surpassing her mentor, Fragonard, to whom she remained passionately devoted, as he was to her. (Scholars presume their relationship to have been one of cohabitation as well as collaboration, although there is no definitive proof of either charge.) After Fragonard's death in 1806, and the death of her sister in 1823 (also given as 1824), Gérard presided as the matriarch of the Fragonard clan until her own death in 1837.
Unlike her female contemporaries Anne Vallayer-Coster, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun , and Adelaide Labille-Guiard , who were recognized in the minor fields of still life and portraiture, Gérard excelled in genre painting, an area previously reserved for men. Genre painting, as explained by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin , was "the nearest approximation of history painting for an artist lacking the requisite academic education," and as such "supposedly required a degree of inventiveness and imagination that placed it a notch above portraiture and still-life painting in the hierarchy of eighteenth-century art." After 1790, when the Salons were opened to women, Gérard exhibited regularly and was honored with three medals. Her works were purchased by Napoleon and Louis XVIII, adding further to her credibility. Her professional career flourished for nearly 50 years and brought her considerable personal wealth. Germaine Greer , who apparently buys into the theory that Marguerite was a homewrecker, finds more than a little irony in Gérard's popularity. "That she could have become famous as a pictorial moralist while living openly as an adulteress with her sister's husband exceeds all possibilities of hypocrisy."
Gérard's genre scenes, small in size (rarely exceeding 19 by 22 inches), were inspired by Dutch masters like Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667) and Gerard Terborch (1617–1681) and were admired for their "old master" ambiance and meticulous technique. Gérard emulated the trompe l'oeil effect of the 17th-century Dutch masters and also employed a painstaking glazing technique used to eradicate all traces of brushstroke. One of her most famous genre paintings, The Piano Lesson (1780s), well represents the artist in both theme and technique. The scene depicts a devoted mother, the bourgeois heroine of many of Gerard's genre scenes of the mid-1780s, overseeing her young daughter at the piano (a less erotic treatment of Fragonard's music lesson in which a male instructor hovers over a female pupil). In the accurate rendering of the mother's satin gown, which Harris and Nochlin refer to as "a Gérardian cliché," is seen the glazing technique that Gérard borrowed from the Dutch petits maitres. (It is interesting to note that Gérard probably used a draped mannequin to achieve the realistic effect of
the fabrics in the ladies' gowns. An inventory of her estate in 1837 contains a description of four very worn mannequins of different sizes.)
Gérard's portraits and miniatures, also small in size, were more spontaneous and dynamic ("Fragonardesque"), with colors applied directly on the surface of the canvas allowing the brush marks to remain quite visible. Among these, The Architect and His Family (c. 1787–89) and The Attractive Art Student (c. 1780–1790), a self-portrait, are representative. In her less constrained portrait style, some suggest that Gérard may have been an 18th-century precursor of Impressionism. While that is debatable, it is most certainly true that as an independent woman who chose a career over marriage, Marguerite Gérard was well ahead of her time.
Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists, 1550–1950. LA County Museum of Art: Knopf, 1976.
Petteys, Chris. Dictionary of Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1985.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts