Marguerite Gerard titled her 1804 painting Bad News, and clearly the woman has just read a surfeit of it. Collapsed in a chair, the offending letter grasped in limp fingers, she has swooned dramatically, unaware of an imminent wardrobe malfunction. Her bodice has slipped low enough to allow a hint of the forbidden (her right side, viewer’s left).
The woman’s letter was sent in a pre-envelope era so we see the paper that wrapped it lying on the floor, the four corners spread wide after the wax seal was broken. I have included a couple of close-ups to examine some of the painting’s rich detail more closely.
A young companion holds a bottle of smelling salts, made from an ammonia solution, to the woman’s nose to revive her. As late as World War II, the British Red Cross recommended that workplaces keep them on hand just in case… The young lady, while gowned more simply, is still richly attired with a diadem in her hair as well as a bracelet, brooch and earrings. Their high waisted dresses mark the time as the Regency era, now most frequently associated with Jane Austen films.
The drama of the moment is echoed in the dog, who looks like he might be a King Charles spaniel. Note the slightly hunched back, and tail tucked between his legs. In fact, his behavior probably reflects Part I of the drama before the woman sank into her chair. Did she shriek, shout, drop her handkerchief to the floor before her collapse? Whatever happened, It’s clear that her little companion is not coming close enough to nuzzle her hand.
While Marguerite also painted portraits and miniatures, she is known best for her domestic genre work. Both sister-in-law and student of artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, she enjoyed a successful career in her own right with her work being acquired by several illustrious clients, including Napoleon and King Louis XVII.
Francois Dumont painted such a lovely portrait of Marguerite that I decided to include it along with her painting, perhaps as an apology for taking her work less seriously than it was intended. I can’t help adding my own caption to the scene: “Don’t faint…I sent you a letter.”
Cards with the Bad News image (along with less serious captions) are available at the Postwhistle Shop on Zazzle.
Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.