Guest blogger: Leslie Anderson, UMFA curator of European, American, and regional art
Last November I noticed a connection between the UMFA’s Mademoiselle Marie-Madeleine Guimard by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) and works by the same artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. At the time, I was researching an unrelated project, a proposal for the conservation treatment of two oil paintings by French eighteenth-century artist Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724–1780). The story of this discovery demonstrates a vital aspect of curatorial practice that is often invisible to the average museum visitor: the role that research plays in expanding art historical knowledge.
The Saint-Aubin pieces I was researching show several allegorical figures. Another scholar had argued that Saint-Aubin deviated from established iconography in his allegorical scenes, making it difficult for the modern viewer to understand his work. I questioned this assertion, studying depictions of each allegorical figure represented in the paintings. Among the figures is Vigilance. For comparison, I searched for contemporaneous images of Vigilance and examined two books that would’ve been consulted by artists of Saint-Aubin’s day, an emblem book by late sixteenth-century author Cesare Ripa and an eighteenth-century French translation by sculptor Jean-Baptiste Boudard.
It is my practice to first examine collections with profound depth in the area under consideration—in this case, French eighteenth-century painting. A preliminary search led me to an oval portrait of a sitter in an allegorical guise titled Allegory of Vigilance (Fig. 2) by Fragonard. It had entered the Met’s collection in 1953. The painting’s size, oval shape, date of execution, and allegorical subject correspond exactly to our Fragonard. The UMFA’s historical file contained no mention of the Met’s work, so I checked the Fragonard catalogue raisonné at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library. (A catalogue raisonné, which contains records of all known works by an artist, is an art historian’s first stop when researching an object.) Published in an English translation in 1988, Jean-Pierre Cuzin’s Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Life and Work: Complete Catalogue of the Oil Paintings documented the three paintings; however, it did not indicate a relationship between them. I filed this information away until I had the time to pursue their kinship further.
In March I traveled to New York to visit several exhibitions, including monographic shows devoted to Anthony van Dyck at the Frick Collection and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun at the Met. (The UMFA is fortunate to have works by both artists, Hendrick van der Poel by Van Dyck and Princess Evdokia Ivanovna Golitsyna as Flora and Portrait of Princess Natalia Ivanovna Kourakin née Golovine by Vigée Le Brun, and I strive to remain informed on current research devoted to them.) The opportunity was ripe to view the Met’s Fragonard in person. The gallery in which the object hung closed early on the first day of my visit, however, so I decided to return following a three-day excursion to Boston. The next time I arrived at the Museum, I learned that the painting had been removed from view and sent to paintings storage. At that point, I contacted a colleague at the Met, Katharine Baetjer, curator in the department of European Paintings. Though traveling abroad, she arranged for me to visit the object in storage and view the Met’s historical file, which contained a rich bibliography devoted to their Fragonard and previous correspondence between curators and scholars. In turn, I shared an image of the UMFA’s painting and the contents of our historical file. Within the Met’s hefty dossier was a copy of an excerpt from another catalogue raisonné, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Fragonard, published in 1989 by Pierre Rosenberg. In it, the highly regarded art historian identified the UMFA’s painting (known up until this point as Mademoiselle Marie-Madeleine Guimard and Woman Looking in a Mirror) as Allegory of Prudence, the Detroit Institute of Art’s as Allegory of Force, and the Met’s as Allegory of Vigilance. He suggested that the three may be pendants, meaning that they were conceived as complementary and intended to be hung together. The location of the UMFA’s oil was unknown to the author at that time. Several years later, it would be part of a monumental gift to the Museum by Val Browning.
Bringing the UMFA’s Fragonard to the attention of the Met, who had been unaware of its current location, prompted their curatorial staff to arrange a digital reunion of the three paintings. Though these works by Fragonard are physically located in the West, Midwest, and Northeast respectively, you may take a look at all three by visiting this Met webpage and clicking on “Additional Images.”
As for the Saint-Aubin paintings Allegory of Vigilance, Justice, and Law and Allegory of Fidelity and Discretion, treatment was funded by the UMFA’s Ann K. Stewart Docent Conservation Fund and is currently underway. For more on that research, which uses the Met’s Allegory of Vigilance as a supplementary image, read my article in the fall 2016 edition of the online academic periodical Journal 18.