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Museum Minute: La Confidence

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Perhaps the museum’s best-known work is Elizabeth Jane Gardner’s “La Confidence,” a large 19th-century painting of two young women seated on a fountain. One of them embraces the other and seems to whisper a secret (“confidence” in French) into her ear. One of them holds a letter with a forget-me-not flower, a symbol of true love.

Painted around 1880, the work measures nearly six feet high even without its impressive frame and requires a slew of people to move or hang it. Before making its way to the museum, it was in the collection of the Lucy Cobb Institute, an all-girls school in Athens founded by white supremacist Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb. The institute, especially under the leadership of Mildred Rutherford, promoted a lost-cause-influenced view of white southern womanhood focused on propriety and modesty, and the painting was seen as having a moralizing purpose for the young girls enrolled there. The fountain suggests purity, and the unbroken water pitcher at the foot of the figure on the left likely symbolizes virginity even as the young women discuss what may be a love letter.

In 1991, painter, filmmaker and University of Georgia filmmaker James Herbert appropriated Gardner's painting and reinterpreted it in the video for Athens band R.E.M.'s song "Low" from the album “Out of Time.” Herbert’s video animates the figures and suggests that they may be in a relationship with each other rather than reviewing the overtures of a male suitor. Visitors of all kinds connect to the narrative the image suggests and create their own stories to interpret it.