An enigmatic painting by a rediscovered woman artist enters a UK public collection
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An enigmatic painting by a rediscovered woman artist enters a UK public collection
Marguerite Gérard (1761 – 1837), The Reader, 1817. Oil on canvas, 32 x 24 cms (unframed) © The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

BIRMINGHAM.- Marguerite Gérard’s The Reader (about 1817) has been acquired by the Henry Barber Trust for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the stellar art collection located in a Grade 1 listed gallery on the campus of the University of Birmingham.

French artist Marguerite Gérard (1761 – 1837) was one of the most accomplished painters of her time and enjoyed a long and financially rewarding career. Despite her contemporary success and high reputation, her achievements were largely forgotten after her death and it was only in the 1970s, with the emergence of a Feminist critique of Art History, that Gérard returned to view and began her journey back to her rightful place in the history of late 18th and early 19th-century French painting.

Ironically, one reason for this neglect of Gérard is the fact that her work was so popular with private collectors and therefore little was on view in public museums. Whilst this omission has been redressed in France, The Reader is one of just three paintings associated with Gérard in a public gallery in the United Kingdom, and the only one fully ascribed to her.

Gérard has also been overshadowed by her famous brother-in-law, the artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who was married to her elder sister, Marie-Anne, herself an accomplished painter. It was this family connection which enabled Gérard to train as a painter, but, after her death, her works were frequently confused with those of Fragonard and it is only now that her trajectory and achievements as an artist are understood more clearly, thanks largely to the pioneering work of art historians Sally Wells-Robertson, Mary Sheriff and Carole Blumenfeld.

Gérard was born in Grasse in Provence and moved to Paris in 1774 to live with her sister’s family in their quarters at the Louvre. Here, she worked side by side with Fragonard as his pupil and assistant, often collaborating on the same work. However she soon developed her own distinctive style and choice of subject matter, inspired by the ‘fine painters’ of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Ter Borch and Metsu. Unlike Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, her elder by just six years, Gérard concentrated on small scale genre scenes rather than aristocratic society portraiture. She also, unlike Vigée Le Brun, stayed under the political radar during these turbulent political decades. Whilst Vigée-LeBrun, a great favourite of the Queen, Marie Antoinette, was forced into exile in 1789, Gérard worked steadily through each seismic shift, from the Revolution to the era of Napoleon and then the Restoration. Unable to exhibit at the Académie Royale before the Revolution because of her sex, her work was popularized at first through engravings. Once the Salon was opened to women, Gérard exhibited regularly and to critical acclaim from 1799 to 1824.

The Reader was probably painted by Gérard when she was in her fifties. By then she was independently wealthy. A shrewd business woman, she was the head of an extremely productive family workshop and had no need herself to paint for a living, but she was strongly motivated by a continuing professional drive to develop her art and her work remained sought after by private collectors. The subject matter of The Reader is typical, an everyday scene of leisured domestic life in a comfortable upper class home with a woman as its primary focus. Here, a beautifully dressed young woman, we presume the mother, is shown in crisp profile as she concentrates on reading a large volume. She studiously ignores the small boy – her son? – in front of her. Ignored by his mother, the child looks out to us instead, with a curious expression, as he tugs at his left ear.

The spare but elegant setting indicates a handsome marble mantelpiece with a mirrored overmantel and a valuable oriental rug is laid on the table (reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Dutch interiors which first inspired Gérard as a young artist). High on the wall, a painting can just be made out which shows a girl letting a caged bird free. This may reference a theme found in the work Fragonard and others, generally understood at the time as having erotic implications. Likewise, it has been suggested that the book which so engrosses the mother is illustrated with scenes of a sensual nature, this time a nod to the ‘libertine’ works which Gérard and Fragonard had worked on together thirty years previously. Whether or not the original client who first purchased this painting - at first glance a scene of bourgeois propriety and maternal devotion - would have been aware of these undertones is uncertain. What is clear is that Gérard’s work repays careful looking and that she was self-consciously fully part of the artistic movements of her time.

At the Barber, The Reader will hang alongside two other French paintings, Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of Countess Golovina (about 1797-1800) and Etienne Aubry’s Paternal Love (about 1775). Gérard’s subtle take on motherhood will provide an interesting contrast to Aubry’s sentimental vision of humble family life – even the pet cats which feature in both underline the differences. Gérard’s cat issues a stony and inscrutable stare to the viewer, whilst Aubry’s tortoiseshell sleeps on contentedly.

The Reader was acquired from Galerie Perrin, Paris, at TEFAF, Maastricht, March 2020. From a private French collection, the work had not previously been published and was recently authenticated by Dr Blumenfeld, author of the 2019 catalogue raisonné on Gérard.

Commenting on the acquisition of the painting Nicola Kalinsky, Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, said: “This little painting is a huge delight. Exquisitely painted, it is so evocative of its place and era. It’s really wonderful to have such an interesting work by a highly significant woman artist join the Barber collection, particularly as Gérard deserves to be much known in the United Kingdom. It will hang perfectly on the walls of the galleries, creating new juxtapositions as well as being fascinating in its own right I know Gérard is going to be a great discovery for our audiences.”

Marguerite Gérard (1761 – 1837) was born in Grasse, Provence and died in Paris after a long and illustrious career. When she was eight, her sister married the renowned artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and following the death of her mother when she was 14, Marguerite went to live with her sister’s family in the Louvre. Gérard became Fragonard's pupil and assistant in the mid-1770s and studied painting, drawing and printmaking under his tutelage. Together, they created nine etchings in 1778, although historians now believe Gérard was the sole artist of five of them. More than 300 genre paintings, 80 portraits, and several miniatures have now been documented to Gérard. One of her paintings, The Clemency of Napoleon (1806), was purchased by Napoleon in 1808. Other patrons included Louis XVIII and members of the French upper classes. Wealthy collectors purchased her paintings to display in their homes, while engravings of her paintings were popular with the middle class.

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