- Something About Mary
I was writing an MA thesis on Fragonard when I first became aware of Mary Sheriff's work. This was around 1988, a couple of years before her Fragonard book came out, but she had burst onto the scene earlier with a trio of articles relating to it. In the present context, it is appropriate to note that the first of these, and only the second piece she had ever published, appeared in the spring 1986 issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies.1 The articles were revelatory—here was a Fragonard, and a take on the Rococo, that challenged all of the received wisdom about both. Reading them now, from a distance of thirty years, I see that although not framed in terms of the feminist concerns that would be at heart of nearly all of Mary's subsequent work, these articles (and the subsequent Fragonard book itself), are nonetheless typically "Sheriffian" in their approach and sensibility. They are grounded in her unstinting commitment to theoretically and historically informed (re)interpretation of individual works of art as a means of opening up a range of broader questions about art, culture, and history. They exemplify her virtuoso talent for close, nuanced readings of the works themselves, as well as her deep appreciation for the formal, material, and semiotic aspects of painting. And they already have that authorial voice which was so distinctively her own.
The work on Fragonard grew out of Mary's dissertation, completed in 1981, and was, in terms of both subject matter and approach, a precocious act of resistance. It was her first salvo in what she later called "talking back" to canonical art history and its myths. Reading against the grain was a key aspect of Mary's interpretive strategies and practice throughout her career, and something she talked about in a number of important essays on gender and art historical methodology.2 [End Page 179]
An early example of Mary's "talking back" was her critical review of the 1988 Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Grand Palais Fragonard exhibition, in which she sassily challenged the curator's business-as-usual insistence on le bon Frago as "light, frivolous and hopelessly Rococo."3 Her review also included a bracing defense of a junior scholar whose recent article on Fragonard had been called out in the exhibition catalog as "overly interpretive" and "beside the point." It was thrilling to read Mary's takedown of a retardataire and patronizing attempt to discipline a graduate student who was engaging in the theoretically informed, interpretive art history that was beginning to broaden the prospects of eighteenth-century French art at that time.4 After the publication of Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (1990), Mary herself would be subject to conservative backlash in a book review or two. How deliciously ironic and gratifying that twenty-five years later, the organizers of the 2015 RMN/Grand Palais exhibition Fragonard Amoureux commissioned her to write a feature essay for its catalogue!
My first direct communications with Mary came in 1991, when I decided it would be a good idea to write to her out of the blue, asking for her thoughts on a document I was then passing off as a dissertation prospectus. Fortunately for me, that turned out be an outstanding idea: I got back a single-spaced three-page letter teeming with suggestions. I have kept it all these years, printed in dot-matrix, the paper yellowed and dog-eared, covered with my notes and underlining. When I look back on that first epistolary exchange (such an appropriately eighteenth-century mode of communication!), I am still amazed at Mary's readiness to respond so thoughtfully to some random grad student she had never met. Even more amazing is that she extended the same seemingly boundless generosity to so many other comers.
In her letter Mary talked about her own work, which was at a turning point. She explained that while writing Fragonard she became "very involved" with women's studies and feminist theory. But as the course of that book had long been set, she did not have time to reconceive the project in a responsible way...