Refined in execution and melancholy in atmosphere, this highly finished study immediately brings to mind Ossian evoking ghosts on the edge of the Lora, a painting commissioned from Gérard in 1800 for the château in Malmaison by Joséphine de Beauharnais, whose enthusiasm for the subject was shared by her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, at the time France’s premier consul. She entrusted the interior decoration to the architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, who asked Gérard and Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson to supply two large paintings for the château’s Salon doré. Gérard’s painting was subsequently lost, but Malmaison was able to replace it in 1967 by another version (inv. MM 67-3-1; fig.; see H. Hohl in Ossian, exhib. cat., Paris, Grand Palais, and Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1974, no. 75, ill.). The paintings’ subjects were taken from (or in the case of Girodet’s composition, inspired by) the epic poem of Ossian, published in Edinburgh in 1760 and purportedly based on Gaelic oral tradition, but in fact the creation of the Scottish writer James Macpherson. The text was hugely popular in the decades following its publication.
Among the works Gérard produced in preparation for the Malmaison picture is a canvas at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (inv. 1060; see P. Rosenberg in Poussin, Watteau, Chardin, David… Peintures françaises dans les collections allemandes XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle, exhib. cat., Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, and elsewhere, 2005-2006, no. 52, ill.), and a squared drawing at the Louvre (inv. RF 35641; see A. Sérullaz in Gérard, Girodet, Gros. L’Atelier de David, Paris, 2005, no. 11, ill.).
The subject of the present sheet is close but not identical to that of the Malmaison composition: here, Malvina is about to expire in the arms of her father-in-law, the bard Ossian, after which she will join her lover, the warrior Oscar, in Odin’s paradise. The same scene would be treated in 1811 by Ary Scheffer in a painting once attributed to Girodet and now at the Musée Auguste Grasset in Varzy (inv. VP 002). While the precise purpose and context for the creation of Gérard’s drawing offered here still needs further clarification, it bears witness to the artist’s fascination with the Ossianic epic, and reaffirms his place, alongside Ingres and Girodet, as one of the great figures in French Romanticism to be inspired by the genius of Macpherson’s forgery.
Fig. François Gérard, Ossian evoking ghosts on the edge of the Lora, Château de Malmaison