In Mary Sheriff’s article The Cradle is Empty: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, and the Problem of Intention, she argues that deciphering the meaning of this painting is difficult, especially because the intention and interpretation of Marie-Antoinette and Her Children have been often co-mingled, further compounding efforts to extract any meaning; an idea which is alluded to in the title itself with “…and the problem of Intention.”[footnoteRef:1] Later in this essay I will dive deeper into the specificities of Mary Sheriff’s thesis as I do a complete analysis of “The Cradle is Empty”. I will also analyze the article’s main arguments and give my overall interpretation of its content. First, I will outline Mary Sheriff’s scholarly qualifications. [1: Sheriff, Mary D. 2013. "The Cradle is Empty: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, and the Problem of Intention." Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Hyde, Melissa and Milam, Jennifer) 164-878.]
Dr. Mary D. Sheriff was a very well-known art historian who was a W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Art History at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1983 until her death in 2016.[footnoteRef:2] She wrote many books in her field of study which focused on “creativity, sexuality, gender, and, more recently, travel and cultural exchange.”[footnoteRef:3] Many of her books and articles were focused on 18th and 19th century French culture and art and she wrote a few other papers about paintings by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, so she was definitely well-qualified to write The Cradle is Empty given her years of researching, teaching and writing about this subject.[footnoteRef:4] [2: "Mary Sheriff." Art Department. Accessed March 18, 2018. https://art.unc.edu/art-history/art-history-faculty/mary-sheriff/.] [3: Ibid.] [4: Ibid. ]
I believe Mary Sheriff wrote this article to delve deeper into and to add to the rhetoric about this painting. Scholars have attempted to interpret the meaning in the content of the painting both during the time it was painted and in recent contemporary writings. I think Sheriff attempts to add the rhetoric but also uses many details about the contextual history of the painting to show that we will never really know exactly what the painting means. The line “The Cradle is Empty” in the title is a clever way to hint that she will be talking about the literal empty cradle, but also uses it as a metaphor for how we will never know the true meaning of it.[footnoteRef:5] [5: Sheriff, “The Cradle is Empty”, 2013]
The article is clearly written for an academic audience. First, it was published in an academic publication, but even if that wasn’t obvious, the language she uses makes it clear. She uses a lot of French words (i.e. portrait en grand, amour propre, en costume de sacre) which are commonplace and understood by art history scholars.[footnoteRef:6] The general elevated language is another identifier of a schola...