Three weeks after the death of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Marguerite Gérard exhibited at the 1806 Salon her most ambitious composition, La Rosière or Le Baiser de protection de la dame du lieu [“The kiss of protection by the local chatelaine”], in which the contemporary critics recognized the portrait of the recently deceased painter in the face of the bailiff: “On a vu avec un vrai plaisir que, sous l’habit du maire du village, elle avait immortalisé les traits de son habile et respectable maître, feu Fragonard” [“We have seen with great pleasure that, under the guise of the village mayor, she has immortalized the features of her able and respected master, Fragonard”]. (Ducray-Duminil, “Salon des Tableaux”, Journal des petites affiches de Paris, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Fonds Deloynes, XL, pièce 1063, p. 374) and “Les amis des Arts, de la grâce ingénieuse, et de tout ce qu’il y a d’aimable avec abandon, retrouvent ici avec un vif plaisir le portrait du vieux Fragonard, dans celui du Bailly. Il fut le Maitre de mademoiselle Gérard, et elle semble hériter de son pinceau.” [“Friends of the Arts, of graceful ingenuity, and of all that is lovable and free, find here with great pleasure the portrait of the elderly Fragonard, in the figure of the bailiff. He was the master of mademoiselle Gérard, and she seems to have inherited his brush”]. (“Etat des arts du dessin en France à l’aube du XIXe siècle. Salon de 1806, ouvrage dans lequel les principales productions de l’école actuelle sont classées, expliquées, analysées, à l’aide d’un commentaire exact, raisonné…publié par un observateur impartial”, Le Pausanias français, Paris, 1806, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Fonds Deloynes, XXXIX, pièce 1053, p. 217). Both Fragonard’s sister-in-law and student, Gérard was already a well-established and celebrated artist at this time, and alongside Louis-Léopold Boilly, was the most respected genre painter of her generation.
Marguerite Gérard had a brilliant career and enjoyed remarkably consistent patronage. Such was not the case with many of her fellow genre painters such as Martin Drolling and Marc-Antoine Bilocq, who struggled to overcome the succession of political regimes and above all, the constantly changing hierarchies and powerful elites. From her earliest paintings, which were collaborations with Fragonard and sold at times under her name and at times under her master’s, to the works from 1810-1820, which responded to the new cultural and social codes of the Restoration, she constantly evolved her style to suit the desires of her public. In the first decade of the 19th century, she simultaneously enjoyed the patronage of Jean-Frédéric Perrégaux, the “the banker to the Empire”, Hippolyte Sanguin de Livry, a decadent aristocrat who spent his entire fortune supporting genre and landscape painters, as well as Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, one of the greatest collectors in history.
From 1806 or 1808, certain subjects that were popular during the last years of the Ancien Régime, were taken up by artists and adapted to suit the tastes of the moment. Some patrons were politically motivated, such as Sanguin de Livry, who helped bring back into favor Marie-Antoinette’s favorite composer, Grétry, whom he worshiped with a cult-like devotion. Others took inspiration from themes from the past that resonated perfectly with the “pre-Romantic” spirit that was fashionable at that time. The subject of La Rosière, on the other hand, had never fallen out of favor and had been treated continuously by writers, painters and composers, particularly since it was popularized by Grétry’s La Rosière de Salency, which the composer presented in 1774. The subject appeared again in Louvet de Couvray’s Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas, one of the most admired publications of the late 18th century, and during the Revolution itself, a “fête de la rosière” was even organized in the garden of the Palais Royal.
Marguerite Gérard knew well how to exploit the solemn character of this event: an apotheosis of purity and virginal wisdom, in which the most worthy and virtuous girl in the village was crowned with a garland of flowers. To represent this bucolic, springtime ceremony, she drew upon a theatrical rhetoric to construct, according to her fashion, the décor, the composition and the lighting. Indeed, the treatment of light is almost artificial: the principal figures are vividly illuminated, and painted with particularly intense colors, while at the same time the secondary figures are plunged into shadow, their volumes defined with sfumato. Above all, Marguerite Gérard is clearly playing with the religious and pagan references of La Rosière, multiplying these references with more traditional iconography –the arrangement of the figures recalls Renaissance depictions of the Presentation of Mary at the Temple. The elegant outfits and notably the garments with ruffed collars are a new interpretation of the so-called “troubadour” costumes that were previously envisioned by Fragonard in his figures with “costumes espagnoles”, inspired by Rubens and Van Dyck. Likewise, the uniforms of the little pages are a wink to the figures Marguerite Gérard painted with Fragonard in their paintings from the 1780s.
La Rosière marks a turning point in Gérard’s art. The painting embodies her pursuit to develop a new aesthetic, definitively abandoning her golden tones to work instead with cold and saturated colors. The pinks and blues that she would frequently use in the 1810s, together with yellowish-oranges, make their first appearance here. In the white, shimmering Dutch satins, we see her preference for the pearlescent aspects of these new fabrics and gauzes. Most importantly, she introduces here a new manner of drawing faces. In contrast to her puppet-like heads of the 1780s or the fuller and rounder heads of the late 1790s and early 1800s, here the faces of the rosière, the chatelaine and several of the women in the background are more angular and slender. Among the twenty characters in the painting, she also placed several portraits like the one of Fragonard, who has a more aged appearance than in the Portrait of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse, Fragonard Museum) that she made a few years earlier. The elderly woman in the background could be Marie-Anne Fragonard, and there is every reason to believe that the young man next to her, on whose shoulder she leans, could be Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard, as self-portraits by him from this period bear a strong resemblance.
The critics’ reception of La Rosière was ambivalent, but in reality this was a reflection of their attitude toward women artists in general. Certainly the Pausanias français was satisfied that “Mlle. Gérard marche seule dans une carrière où son goût et ses mains habiles savent toujours faire éclore des fleurs“ [“Mlle. Gerard walks alone in a career where her taste and her dexterous hands always know how to make flowers bloom.]” (ibid.); the Journal du publiciste underscored “ la fraîcheur du sujet” [“the freshness of the subject”] (“Sur le Salon”, Journal du publiciste, 1806, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Fonds Deloynes, XXXVIII, pièce 1051, p. 655-656); Eugène Dandrée wrote “Ce sont les grâces qui tiennent toujours les pinceaux de mademoiselle Gérard” [“It is the Graces who always holds Mlle. Gérard’s brushes]” and “ces douces émotions si favorables au développement de la beauté, et que mademoiselle Gérard sait parfaitement saisir” [“those sweet emotions so favorable to the development of beauty, and that Mlle. Gérard knows perfectly how to capture.”] (E. Dandrée, Quatrième lettre sur le Salon de 1806 à M. Denon, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Fonds Deloynes, XL, pièce 1071, p. 8); and Hippolyte Delaroche started his text with “Voilà sans doute un ouvrage agréable, une composition spirituelle, un dessin gracieux, une couleur fraîche et suave, des détails pleins d’esprit: tous indique une main exercée, un pinceau facile” [“Here we have no doubt a pleasant work, a witty composition, graceful draftsmanship, a fresh and sophisticated color palette, and detail full of cleverness: all of these things indicate a practiced hand, a facility with the brush”] (H. Delaroche, Suite de l’examen des tableaux, 1806, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Fonds Deloynes, XL, pièce 1058, p. 149). However, the majority, who favored history painting over genre painting did not fail to implicitly recall the sex of the artist to explain anomalies that they saw in the painting, in particular the uniform character of the figures. Delaroche, in fact, speaks of “l’indulgence que demande et que mérite le talent aimable et gracieux d’une femme (…) cependant tout en remarquant ces défauts, on est tenté de les pardonner, et on le doit sans doute en faveur du goût, de la grâce et de l’harmonie qui brillent dans tout l’ouvrage.“ [“The indulgence that is both merited and required by the likeable and gracious talent of a woman (…) all the while noting their faults, we are tempted to forgive them, and we should, without doubt, because of the taste, grace, and harmony that shines throughout the work”] (ibid.). Le Pausanias was vacillating between kindness and irony: “L’âme candide et pure de Mlle Gérard a répandu une teinte virginale sur ce Tableau, comme sur toutes les scènes domestiques auxquelles son pinceau prête tant de charme. Ce charme n’y brille que trop. On pourrait dire en quelque sorte que ce pinceau abuse des Grâces. Il touche presqu’à la manière, c’est un genre français, et qui frise le Dorat en peinture. Mais cette touche est infiniment spirituelle ; et d’ailleurs le genre et le style de Mlle. Gérard sont bien à elle. Son talent est décidé et se soutient sans recours étranger.” [“the candid and pure soul of Mlle Gérard has cast a virginal tint on this painting, as in all the domestic scenes to which her brush lends its charm. This charm only shines within it too much. One could even say, in a sense, that the brush is taking advantage of the Graces. It almost touches the style, it is a French genre, and verges on Dorat in painting. But this touch is infinitely clever, and in fact the genre and style of Mlle. Gérard are well indeed her own. Her talent is decided and can be supported without having outside recourse.”].
Contrary to the majority of the paintings by the artist that were sold in those years on the basis of success in the Salon, La Rosière - which was probably intended to attract the attention of Empress Joséphine, who did not acquire a work by Marguerite Gérard until the following Salon - had difficulty finding a buyer, and more than a year later, Denon was still trying to find a home for the painting, as evidenced by the following note addressed to the artist:
“4 novembre 1807 à Mlle Gérard, peintre:
Le directeur général du musée Napoléon à Mlle Gérard, peintre.
J’ai reçu la lettre que vous m’avez fait l’honneur de m’écrire ; je suis désespéré de ne m’être pas trouvé chez moi lorsque vous m’avez fait l’honneur de vous y présenter. J’ai fait tout ce que j’ai pu pour placer votre tableau de La Rosière, mes voeux n’ont pas été couronnés du succès. J’espère être plus heureux une autre fois et pouvoir vous témoigner toute l’estime que je fais de votre talent.”
[“4 November 1807 to Mlle. Gérard, painter.
The General Director of the musée Napoléon to Mlle. Gérard, painter:
I have received the letter that you did me the honor of writing me; I am so saddened that I was not at home when you did me the honor paying me a visit there. I have done everything that I could to find a home for your painting of La Rosière, my wishes have not been crowned with success. I hope to be happier on another occasion and to be able to demonstrate all the esteem that I have for your talent.”]
(Archives des musées nationaux, registre *AA5 p. 333, lettre de Denon à Marguerite Gérard).
Soon afterward, however, La Rosière entered the collection of Cardinal Fesch. Contrary to the Napoleons, in particular Caroline and Lucian, who were also collectors of Marguerite Gérard, Fesch had little interest in 18th century painting and especially in contemporary artists, with the exception of the Sablet brothers, and yet he became the most fervent connoisseur of Marguerite Gérard’s works. After La Rosière, he acquired ten other paintings by the artist, primarily Salon works, which he kept until his death in Rome in 1839. La Rosière was in fact the painting by Marguerite Gérard that sold for the most money at the time of the dispersal of his collection in 1845.