Prelude to a Concert ca. 1810

Marguerite Gérard, Prelude to a Concert, ca. 1810; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

By the early 1780s, Marguerite Gérard had produced many genre paintings featuring affluent women making music, taking lessons or, as here, rehearsing for informal concerts.

Inspired by 17th-century Dutch paintings, such scenes function on two levels. On one hand, they illustrate the expectation that young women of the upper classes were expected to be accomplished in various social arts, chiefly music. Yet recent scholarship has emphasized the traditional link between painted images of music making and physical love.

Here, the female singer is clad in a sumptuous white satin gown, attire often seen on Gérard’s female subjects. She pauses to gaze up at her male accompanist, perhaps in response to a romantic overture. The tension of an erotic narrative is further supported by the guitar, often compared to the female body; the dog, a traditional emblem of fidelity; and the cat, a symbol of sexual promiscuity.

The musical instrument shown in this painting is typical of European guitars from the 18th and 19th centuries. Smaller than the modern guitar, it has a flat bottom, a decorative rosette set into the sound hole, and only five strings (versus the now common six).