Royalists to Romantics: Spotlight on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

In Royalists to Romantics: Woman Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections, 77 works by 35 artists display the talents of French Revolution-era women artists. Their paintings are windows into their careers and the singular challenges of their time. The catalogue that NMWA has published to illustrate Royalists to Romantics includes essays as well as individual artist biographies that give insight into the lives of women artists working in France between 1750 and 1848. This excerpt explores the life of one the show’s featured artists, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. For additional information, visit www.nmwa.org, or purchase the catalogue from the Museum Shop by calling 877-226-5294.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), Portrait of a Woman, 1787. Oil on canvas. Musée des beaux-arts, Quimper

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), Portrait of a Woman, 1787. Oil on canvas. Musée des beaux-arts, Quimper

Portraitist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was the daughter of a shopkeeper whose boutique, near the Palais-Royal, stocked fashionable fabrics and trimmings.¹ She learned her considerable skills from artists in the neighborhood: she studied miniature painting with François-Élie Vincent (1708–1790), who taught in the Academie de Saint-Luc; she consulted academician Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788) for advice on pastels; and she learned oils from François-André Vincent, an academician and son of François-Élie. François-André became her second husband in 1800, seven years after she divorced Nicolas Guiard, an administrator in the treasury of the clergy.

Labille-Guiard joined the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1774, and later that year sent a pastel and a miniature to its final show. In 1782 she began exhibiting in Pahin de la Blancherie’s commercial venue, the Salon de la Correspondance. Two pastels in the present exhibition—the portraits of the playwright Jean-François Ducis and the actor known as Brizard—first appeared in Pahin’s rooms. Both were commissioned by the comtesse d’Angiviller, wife of the director of the Batîments du roi, who later helped Labille-Guiard to fend off sexually charged criticism. Six members of the Académie royale also sat for portraits by Labille-Guiard in this period; all six voted for her admission.

Laura Auricchio discussing Adélaïde Labille-Guiard  on Member Preview Day

Laura Auricchio discussing Adélaïde Labille-Guiard on Member Preview Day

On May 31, 1783, Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun became the twelfth and thirteenth women ever granted full membership in the Académie royale, bringing the number of female members to its limit of four. Their joint salon debut attracted considerable attention from critics, who found the women’s charms nearly as appealing as their paintings. As Labille-Guiard honed her ability to capture the look and feel of assorted materials and fashions—for instance, in her Portrait of a Woman—she attracted the attention of Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, the powerful aunts of Louis XVI, who commissioned several large-scale portraits.

The outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, and Mesdames’ subsequent emigration, left Labille-Guiard in a difficult position. Remaining in France, she joined the faction of academicians seeking to reform, not abolish, the institution, and affiliated with the moderate politicians known as the Feuillants. However, as radical forces gained control, she was required to submit her largest painting—a group portrait featuring the comte de Provence (the king’s brother who became Louis XVIII)—to be burned. She retired to the countryside with Vincent and two students during the Reign of Terror. In 1795 Labille-Guiard returned to Paris and to the Salons, but neither her spirits nor her career ever recovered fully.

Note

1. Labille-Guiard has been the subject of three books: Laura Auricchio, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution (Los Angeles, 2009); Anne-Marie Passez, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Biographie et catalogue raisonné (Paris, 1973); and Roger Portalis, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1749–1803 (Paris, 1902).

3 thoughts on “Royalists to Romantics: Spotlight on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

  1. In 1979 when I was putting together a slide show: Women Artists Through the Ages, there was little to draw from, certainly not the extensive material your museum now offers. Bravo! That is whty I joiined in 1984 although I live in California. Althea B. Clark, PhD.

  2. This page of history is much appreciated! A woman art teacher started a class on controversial art, just two years ago, by saying that women were not serious about art until the present. My heart just sank, as you can imagine; and who wants to start a semester by screaming, ‘What craziness do you speak, woman??’ So thank you for the bio, and especially thank you for the photograph of all those women sitting in the audience, juxtaposed with Labille-Guiard’s work!! It does my heart good to see this; women’s art won’t disappear again, this photo is witness.

  3. I would love to know the text of the letter the sitter is writing. I was able to make out what appears to be “A mes citoyens,” as the greeting (although that would seem anachronistic, given the date of 1787) and “protège” (“protect”) toward the end. Filling in the rest could possibly give us a clue as to who the sitter was.

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