This story was originally released by Duke’s Office of News & Communications on March 29, 2006. Former Associate Curator Anne Schroder passed away on December 24, 2010.
After four years of sleuthing by one of its curators, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University announced Wednesday it has confirmed that an anonymous work in its collection dated 1787 was painted by the young François Gérard.
Anne Schroder, the museum’s associate curator, knew she had found an important painting and solved the mystery by hunting down clues about the painting and its “F.G.” signature in France, New York and Boston. One important clue surfaced in 2004, when conservator Ruth Cox removed the canvas from its original stretcher and discovered “Mr. Gérard” scrawled in pencil more than 200 years ago on the wooden framework for the unlined canvas.
Schroder and Cox will announce their findings in Montreal on Saturday at a meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.
“It’s a curator’s dream,” said Schroder, who oversees the Nasher Museum’s permanent collection. “I have enjoyed the puzzle of it.”
Francois Gérard (1770-1837) was a student in the studio of French neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David from 1786 until 1790. He is perhaps best known for his 1798 painting “Cupid and Psyche.” On April 6, another early Gérard painting bearing a similar “F.G.” signature will be on the auction block at Christie’s in New York.
Gérard was a prodigy, Schroder said, and just 17 when he painted the Nasher Museum’s work. The museum calls the heretofore unnamed painting “Clytemnestra Receiving the News of Iphigenia’s Impending Sacrifice,” based on Schroder’s research.
Schroder discovered the painting in November 2001 in the Paris gallery of French art broker Etienne Breton of Blondeau and Associés. The artist’s name was not known, the Greek scene in the painting was unidentified and the painting’s varnish had yellowed with age.
At Schroder’s recommendation, the Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA) bought the painting for an undisclosed price. “We paid one-third or half the price of an attributed Gérard painting,” she said.
The painting was never on view in the former museum space on Duke University’s East Campus because it required cleaning and conservation. DUMA closed in May 2004 and the restored painting moved to the new Nasher Museum of Art, where it has been on display since October.
“I wanted a good history painting for the collection,” Schroder said. “The tradition of historical and literary subjects in painting goes back from the Italian Renaissance until the Impressionists. This painting is a marvelous example of the neoclassical style, of David’s impact on his students and of Gérard’s early style, which has been poorly understood and of which few examples survive. The artist is best known for a more serene style, developed later in his career, and his portraiture.”
The painting, like other French neoclassical paintings of the late 1700s, represents a story from history and mythology. Schroder consulted with Duke classical studies professor Keith Stanley to identify the painting’s subject. Last month, at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, Schroder located an 18th-century French opera libretto that likely influenced Gérard’s interpretation of the Greek myth.
The story behind the painting is that Mycenaean king Agamemnon offended the goddess Artemis. The goddess retaliated by stopping the winds in the Athenian harbor and stranding the Greek navy on its way to fight Troy. To appease the goddess and allow the navy to sail, Agamemnon was ordered to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. The painting captures the moment when the girl and her mother, Clytemnestra, realize the horrible truth. Agamemnon enters the room with a band of men to seize Iphigenia, who, with a terrified sister, clings to her mother.