Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, an Eighteenth-Century Miniaturist and Portrait Painter

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (born 11 April 1749)

Adélaïde Labille was the daughter of Claude-Edme Labille and Marie-Anne Saint-Martin, the last of their eight children to be born. Claude-Edme was a successful marchand du corps de la mercerie--a haberdasher--his fashionable Parisian boutique, À la Toilette, attracting an elite clientele.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard with pupils,
detail of Self-Portrait, 1785
Little is known of Adélaïde's early life, though it is likely she spent at least some time in a convent, learning to read and write there.

As far as her formal instruction as an artist, her experience differs from that of many of the women artists about whom I've written in this blog, who were trained by their fathers.

Without this opportunity, Adélaïde was tutored instead by a family friend, François Elie Vincent, a miniaturist whose shop was located near À la Toilette.

As an adolescent, she thus learned and practiced the traditionally "feminine" media of miniatures and pastels. She would later study oil painting with Vincent's son, François-André Vincent.*

While studying with François Elie Vincent, Labille was also able to join the Académie de Saint-Luc, a painter's guild joined by many artists who were not accepted as members of the more prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Unlike the Royal Academy, which severely limited women members, the Academy of St. Luke was open to female artists, including not only Labille but also her contemporary, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée.

In 1769, after the death of her mother, Labille married Louis Nicolas Guiard, a clerk in the office of the Receiver General of the the Clergy of France. Her marriage contract, signed in August of that year, notes her status as a professional painter and member of the Academy of St. Luke.

In 1774, Labille-Guilard exhibited there publicly for the first time. The Academy of St. Luke exhibition was so successful that the Royal Academy engineered the dissolution of its rival--a royal edict issued in March 1776, abolished all "guilds, brotherhoods, and communities of arts and crafts"--excepting the Royal Academy itself, of course. At the time the Academy of St. Luke was dissolved in 1777, there were 130 women among its members.**

Marie Adélaïde de France, a pastel portrait (1786-7)
of one of the princesses of France,
 Labille-Guiard's royal patrons
The closure of the Academy of St. Luke prompted Labille-Guiard to study oil painting--mastering this medium would, perhaps, allow her to become a member of the Royal Academy, which required an oil painting be submitted as part of an application for admission.

In the mean time, Labille-Guiard separated from her husband (while separation was legal, divorce was not). She continued her work in pastels as well as painting in oil, exhibiting both pastels and oil paintings in the Salon de la Correspondance, which opened in 1778, and was tolerated for just a few years before it too was dissolved.

Labille-Guiard exhibited at the Salon in 1781 and 1782 before she was, at last, admitted to the Royal Academy on the same day, 31 May 1783, that her contemporary,  Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée, was also admitted. Both women were, by this time, well-accomplished and successful artists, and both had royal patrons, Vigée-Le Brun enjoying the patronage of Marie Antoinette, Labille-Guiard the Peintre des Mesdames, the official painter of Louis XVI's aunts, the princesses Marie Adélaïde and Victoire-Louise, and of Élisabeth, the king's sister. Their royal clients thus came from different court factions.

Whether it can be attributed to politics or misogyny--or both--these two women artists, Labille-Guiard and Vigée, were immediately cast as vicious rivals. As Laura Aurrichio describes it: 
The two debuted at the Salon amid a flurry of controversy, and were greeted by a libelous pamphlet filled with sexual and ethical innuendo. Vincent, for instance, was said to have “touched up” Labille-Guiard—referring both to her paintings and her person. Another quip punned that she had 2,000 lovers, because vingt cents (“20 hundreds”) sounds like “Vincent.” Labille-Guiard initiated legal proceedings by appealing to a well-placed patron. “One must expect to have one’s talent ripped apart,” she wrote in a rare extant letter, but “who can plead on behalf of women’s morals?” 
Contemporaries not only smeared both with sexual innuendo but with suggestions that their work was not their own, but "aided" by men, in Labille-Guiard's case, the claim was that she presented work by François-André Vincent as her own.

In his essay on Labille-Guiard in the Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, Neil Jeffares acknowledges that  the "rivalry between the two [women artists] was intense." That observation seems to place whatever rivalry may have existed in the right context: as professional rather than personal. On the other hand, as the brief note on Labille-Guiard at the Getty Museum website observes, 
Labille-Guiard was often described as a bitter rival of the best-known woman painter of the time, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, but this rivalry was in fact the invention of male artists and critics threatened by their female competitors. 
Whatever the state of the "rivalry" of these two women artists, both women suffered for their association with royal patrons as a result of the French Revolution. While Vigée-Le Brun spent much of the time outside of France, Labille-Guiard was a supporter of the Revolution and remained in Paris. In the Paris Salon of 1791, she exhibited a series of portraits of members of the National Assembly, including that of Robespierre.

Portrait of the Marquise de Lafayette,
oil, 1790
Nevertheless, despite her republican sentiments, her commissions dwindled, and in 1793, she was forced to destroy her largest, most ambitious work, a large group portrait that had been commissioned by the king's brother, The Reception of a Knight of St. Lazare by Monsieur, Grand Master of the Order.

The Royal Academy itself was suspended, by order of the National Assembly, in the same year, 1793 (it resumed three years later, in 1796). She left Paris during the Reign of Terror, retreating to the countryside with François-André Vincent. 

She returned to Paris two years later, in 1795, recognized as one of the nation's savants et artistes awarded a "national recompense," or pension, probably as compensation for damages she had sought after the destruction of her large oil portrait in 1793. At the same time, she was granted an artist's apartment in the Louvre, which she set up as a studio, accepting only women students. (Her petition for such a space had previously been denied because female pupils would "distract" the male artists in residence.)

Meanwhile, after Revolutionary legislation permitted divorce in 1793, she was finally able to divorce Louis Nicolas Guiard. In 1800, Labille-Guiard married François-André Vincent. She exhibited portraits at the Paris Salon until 1800, and she continued to teach and paint until her death, 24 April 1803.

By the way, the post-Revolutionary successor to the Royal Academy accepted no female members.

A gallery of work by Labille-Guiard is available at The Athenaeum, which you can access by clicking here.***

The most extensive discussion of Labille-Guiard's work available online is the essay by Neil Jeffares in Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, accessed by clicking here. Barbara Morgan's entry on Labille-Guilard, in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, is available here.

For a full-length study, I like Laura Auricchio's Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution.

*The younger Vincent had studied painting at the Académie de France. In 1768 he was awarded the Prix de Rome, a scholarship awarded by the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. The Royal Academy prize allowed him to study at the Villa Mancini in Rome for a period of three to five years. 

**By contrast, the Royal Academy accepted only 15 women as members in its 145-year history, from 1648 until it was disbanded and reorganized after 1793--during that time there were 450 male members. The first woman artist accepted into the French Royal Academy, founded in 1648, was Catherine Duchemin, on 14 April 1663. The few women artists who made it into the Royal Academy were not accepted on equal status with their male contemporaries--they could not swear the formal oaths male artists did, upon their membership, vowing to uphold the rules of the Academy (aside from marriage vows, women were precluded from swearing oaths), nor could they follow the usual system of apprenticeship and admission. Even their acceptance as members was exceptional--rather than following usual procedures for application, they were granted special admittance. For the best overview of women in the Royal Academy, see Mary D. Sheriff's comments in the Dictionary of Women Artists, pp. 45-48 (click here).

***As of late fall in 2020, the amazing Athenaeum art database seems to have disappeared--I've left the reference and link here, hoping for its return . . .  For the moment, you can still access the database via a scan of the Internet Archive--the entry for Labille-Guiard is here. There was a flurry of good news about the return of the Athenaeum database in 2022 (click here), but as of January 2023, I have not been able to access it.