Monday, July 21, 2014

Margeurite in Miniature, plus Mysteries!

François Dumont ca. 1800 "A Lady, Possibly the Artist Margeurite Gérard"
courtesy of Christie's
François Dumont (1751-1831) was a French painter known for his fine miniatures. Left orphaned at a relatively early age, with younger siblings dependent upon him, he trained briefly with miniaturist Jean Giradet and very soon set up his own portrait studio with the encouragement of artist Anne Vallayer-Coster. Her confidence in him proved sound, and Dumont's talent was very quickly recognized. He received numerous commissions and grants for further study, and was elected to the French Academy in 1788.  He was also granted an apartment in the Louvre (a common perk for Academic artists.)

Another inhabitant of the artist's apartment complex that was the Louvre in those days was painter Margeurite Gérard. Dumont painted her at least twice, both times with her palette and brushes in her hand. They seem to be painted with a kind of affectionate respect, showing her as a professional artist and a person with a sweet, friendly and intelligent personality.

François Dumont  1793 "Miniature Portrait of Margeurite Gérard" The Wallace Collection
An interesting detail of this painting to my eye is the way the artist has depicted Gérard's satin skirts clinging to her legs, delineating their form clearly. This was a highly unusual presentation. It was an age when, "Low-cut gowns were not considered immodest or even sexual; breasts were merely seen as feminine."  However, "...revealing the ankles or legs was considered scandalous." (Georgian Period ResearchKjerstin Wittwer, 2011) A possibility is that Dumont (although married) had some kind of sexual or romantic relationship with his (unmarried) sitter, though no records of such exist, in such a situation he may have painted this piece for private remembrance. However, Gérard's pleasant and calm gaze does not lend itself to supporting the idea of a torrid romance between the two. Instead I wonder if Dumont was subtly hinting that Gérard's prowess and skill as an artist made her into a kind of "honorary man", a respected gentleman colleague rather than a member of a lesser "ladies' auxiliary" type classification. (Similar to the sincere but backhanded compliment still given today to women painters, that they "paint like a man!")  The way the fabric folds creates almost an impression of trousers lends some credence to my theory. Although it is only conjecture on my part.

Margeurite Gérard "Self-Portrait while Painting a Lute Player" before 1803
location unknown

At age 14, upon the death of her mother, Marguerite Gérard went to live with her older sister, miniaturist Marie-Anne Gérard Fragonard and her husband, renowned painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Gérard lived with the family in their apartment in the Louvre, and quickly became a fully integrated member of the Fragonards' studio, studying etching and engraving as well as oil painting. Gérard never married, but seemed content with her position of maiden aunt within the Fragonard household. She was able to study and work to her hearts content. Although never elected to the French Academy (there was a very strict and tiny quota on the number of women artists allowed to join the Academy at this time) she had a very respectable career, receiving numerous commissions and sending forty-two pieces to eleven Salon exhibitions between 1799 and 1824. She produced mainly portraits and genre paintings and some etchings.

Possibly by Margeurite Gérard, possibly "The Artist's Sister in Her Studio, Painting her Husband's Portrait"
Zimmerli Art Museum 
There is a lot of mystery about this painting. Its most widespread attribution online usually runs something like this :
Marguerite Gérard, French, The Artist, Fragonard's Sister-in-law, Painting her Husband's Portrait. 
c. 1780's, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University.

However, some of this attribution is clearly wrong. Margeurite Gérard never married. So she could not be painting "her husband."  It is far more likely to be a portrait of Margeurite's sister, the painter Marie-Anne Gérard Fragonard.  It might even be a self-portrait by Marie-Anne!  The male portrait in progress on the easel does resemble Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the boy might be their son, Alexandre Évariste Fragonard, later a painter himself. The Zimmerli Art Museum has decided to play it safe, understandably by attributing the painting in this way:

Unidentified Artist
Portrait of an Artist in her Studio, ca. 1790
(French, active late 18th to early 19th century)

It would be sure fun to time travel back and visit with the Fragonard-Gérard-Dumont posse, and get the answers to these questions!

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