By Emma Martin
In the hands of a genius, art can seem akin to alchemy. How else to explain the transformation of a bare canvas and some oil paints into images of such incredible beauty and realism that they appear milliseconds away from life? Take the self-portrait of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard as an example. Look at the incredible movement in the blue-gray silk dress. Note the way light and dark pigments have been used to create the impression of cascading folds, creases and wrinkles. Look at the detail of the seam, with its slight puckers, that runs down the fabric. And there, at the bottom of the painting, a few gray smudges give the impression of a highly polished reflective parquet floor.
And what about the lace? It’s as delicate as the real thing. If you look closely you can even see the fine netting upon which the decorative pattern is woven. The gold earrings glint like the genuine article, the feathers seem ready to waft away in a breeze and you can almost feel the brush of the green velvet on the chair. And what of the faces? Well, so perfectly are they depicted, that you could almost swear that they’ll return to life the moment you look away.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond, 1785, oil on canvas, 210.8 x 151.1cm
It is surely, by any metric, a great painting. And yet, when it was offered to the Louvre by the artist’s descendants in 1878, it was quickly rejected as being ‘without artistic value’. The reason for this? Well, it is true that the 19th century art establishment viewed female artists as inherently inferior to men. Yet, the fact that the Louvre did have space for works by Labille-Guiard’s more famous female contemporary, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, points to something more.
A Struggle for Acceptance
The difficulties that female artists faced in the late 19th century were ones that Labille Guiard knew all too well: lack of access to training, difficulty exhibiting work and accusations of moral impropriety. Chief among Labille-Guiard’s obstacles was that the Royal Academy, the official body governing all aspects of art, allowed only four female members at a time – and these women were only allowed to exhibit, not study. The chief fear being that an exposure to the naked male form in the compulsory life-drawing classes would irretrievably harm a woman’s morals. The Self-Portrait is an incredibly skillful response to these issues, but, in order to explore the way she handled this, we first need to learn a little more about the artist herself.
Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait, circa 1774, watercolor and gouache on ivory, 10.3 x 8.4cm
The Early Years
Adélaïde Labille was born in 1749, the daughter of a clothier who lived and worked in a fashionable area a few streets away from the Royal Academy. Barred from training at the Academy due to her gender, the young Labille turned to her many artist neighbors to further her artistic ambitions. She trained first in the acceptably ‘feminine’ mediums of miniatures, watercolors and pastels, before moving into the male dominated world of oil painting. Little is known of her 1769 marriage to neighbor and civil servant Louis-Nicolas Guiard, other than that they legally separated a decade later. It seems his greatest impact on her life was to give her his name.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of François-André Vincent, Artist, 1782, 60.5 x 50cm, pastel on paper
Any independent woman attempting to participate in male-dominated public life was viewed as a threat to the established order. Under these circumstances it’s no surprise that Labille-Guiard found herself in the crosshairs of public opinion and the subject of prurient rumors. For example, when she exhibited a series of pastels in 1782, their virtuosity led to the accusation that her then teacher (and it must be said, future husband), Franćois-André Vincent, had ‘touched up’ not just the artworks, but the artist herself too.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of Joseph Marie-Vien, the King’s Artist, 1782
Labille-Guiard handled slanders to her talent in a particularly shrewd manner – she invited prominent members of the Royal Academy, including ‘the King’s artist’, Joseph-Marie Vien, to sit for her. This move not only silenced accusations questioning her ability, but it cleverly made connections with powerful figures within the art world.
Success at Last…?
In 1783, Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun were both elected to Royal Academy (only a possibility due to the recent death of two of the four existing female members). But her days of trouble were not quite behind her. At their debut, the new female Academicians drew more attention for their looks and purported rivalry than for their talent. In addition, at the event, an anonymous pamphlet being circulated contained multiple lewd accusations – particularly against Labille-Guiard. She was accused, in a pun on Vincent’s surname, of having two thousand lovers (Vincent being a homonym for vingt cents or twenty hundred).
“One must expect to have one’s talent ripped apart… [but] Who can plead on behalf of women’s morals?”
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in a letter to the comtesse d’Angiviller, 1783
Again, Labille-Guiard showed her political savvy, this time by appealing for help to the comtesse d’Angiviller, the wife of the official in charge of the Academy. The comte held strong beliefs that female artists not only risked bringing indecency to the institution, but that their lack of training in life drawing meant that they could never provide any meaningful contribution to art. By appealing to his wife, woman to woman, and asking her to intercede on her behalf, Labille Guiard cleverly side-stepped the misgivings of the husband and official action was taken against the pamphlet.
Pietro Antonio Martini, View of the Salon of 1785, 1785
(The Self-Portrait is in the middle of the right hand wall.)
The Self-Portrait as a work of strategic genius
Despite her election to the Salon, Labille-Guiard found work as a professional artist slow going. In need of a work to make her name, she exhibited the life-size Self-Portrait in 1785. Standing at over two meters tall it was bound to have an impact. Strategically, it was a masterstroke. It advertised to the highest echelons of society that its creator was skilled enough to produce the portraits that they desired whilst at the same time allowing her to make a strong statement about the place of women in the arts.
Self Portrait, detail of Labille-Guiard’s students, Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond
Pictured above is a close-up, a small portion of the Self-Portrait, showing the two young women standing behind Labille-Guiard. Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond are both students from the artist’s own school founded in 1779. Note that Labille-Guiard is engaged with a canvas much the same size as the one we are viewing, and that she and Capet are looking directly out of the canvas – perhaps not at us the viewer, but a mirror. This creates the very tantalizing possibility that the work being created in the Self-Portrait is the very one we are looking at.
This is not a scene from the imagination, but a very real representation of women studying, practicing and teaching art at the highest level – without the need of men. The large canvas on its practical, unadorned wooden easel, the paint box, chalk holder and dirty rag, all mark this out as a serious space of instruction and learning.
“Such an art is pernicious for females, makes them lose a precious modesty, their most beautiful ornament, and draws them almost always into libertinage”
A contemporary review of a 1783 exhibition featuring nine of Labille-Guiard’s students.
Labille-Guiard skillfully mitigates the highly transgressive nature of her work by incorporating elements that would appeal to her audience. Her fashionable dress, with its low cut bodice and yards of silk, topped by a ridiculously impractical hat mark her out as an acceptable member of elite society. Visible in the background are a bust of her father and a small statue of the vestal virgins, as nods to the importance of the family and feminine modesty.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of Madame Adélaïde, circa 1787, 273 x 187cm
A resounding success
To put it bluntly: the Self-Portrait worked. Labille-Guiard gained the position (complete with government stipend) of “Premier peintre de Mesdames” – with Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, the unmarried aunts of Louis XVI, as her new patrons. As a mark of the importance of the self-portrait to its artist, Labille-Guiard refused Madame Adélaïde’s incredibly generous offer of 10 000 livres for the work. Instead, she painted the royal her own version. This truly sumptuous work was exhibited alongside Vigée-Le Brun’s own portrait of Marie Antoinette at the Salon of 1787. Unfortunately, once again, the public preferred to gossip about the artists’ rivalry, rather than their talents.
A few years later, in 1790, during debates on reforms to the Academy, Labille-Guiard successfully argued that there should be no quota for women members, and that they should be admitted on the basis of their talent only. Interestingly she also argued against women becoming teachers within the organization – as a dedicated teacher herself this at first seems like an odd decision. However, bearing in mind the strategic brilliance she has exhibited elsewhere, it’s pretty easy to surmise that she sacrificed an unwinnable battle in order to at least achieve gender equality of membership.
Vive la Revolution!
Of course, being a court painter during the French Revolution was a dangerous occupation. Vigée-Le Brun, a staunch monarchist, had fled the country in 1789. Labille-Guiard, however, held some Republican sympathies and managed to navigate this difficult period by painting portraits of members of the Revolutionary government. She suffered a great loss (both financially and personally) though, when works with Royal connections were ordered to be destroyed. One of these included her self-proclaimed masterpiece, and it is believed she never fully recovered from this blow.
Marie Gabrielle Capet, Adélaide Labille-Guiard, date unknown
Her Final Years
Labille-Guiard died in 1803, having achieved one last professional victory a few years prior. In 1795, she became the first female artist to be given an apartment in the Louvre. Another, more personal, victory was her marriage to Vincent in 1800 – divorce having been recently legalized.
And what of the Self-Portrait today? Well, France’s loss was America’s gain. The painting entered the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1953. So, if you are lucky enough to find yourself with a spare hour in New York, take a wander over to room 616 of the European Galleries and spend some time with a truly remarkable woman and her students.