Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) was one of the eight children of Claude Edme Labille and Marie-Anne Saint-Martin. Her father owned a haberdashery shop near the Louvre in a popular section of Paris with theaters, music halls, and dance halls. It was home to many artists, since the Royal Academy was housed in the Louvre. Labille-Guiard was able to spend time in the studio of Francois Elie Vincent, a miniaturist, and she also studied pastel with Maurice Quentin de la Tour. She entered the Academy of Saint Luke in 1769. She married Louis Nicholas Guiard, a financial clerk, that same year. The marriage contract stated that she was a professional painter at the Academy of Saint Luke. They separated in 1774; there were no children. When Napoleon came to power, they were able to divorce legally. Although she continued to use the name Guiard, she married Francois Vincent, a history painter, in 1800.
Labille-Guiard’s pastel portraits achieved great success when she exhibited at the Academy of Saint Luke. An exhibition in1877 was so successful that the Royal Academy, with the backing of the King, abolished the Academy of Saint Luke. The ambitious Labille-Guiard was undaunted. By 1783, her pastels had earned her an appointment to the Royal Academy. It had limited membership of women to four. Labille-Guiard was an advocate for women artists. Her “Self-Portrait with Two Students” (1785) (6’11’’ x 5’) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) had several purposes. Exemplary of her classical technique, it included two of her female students, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (d. 1785). Both students would become fine artists, although they could not become Academy members or show their work in Academy exhibitions. Labille-Guiard was determined to get them in the exhibition, one way or another.
She depicted herself in the process of teaching her students, who pay her rapt attention. She shows off her wealth, dressing in an extravagant light blue and white silk gown, with a very low neck-line. She wears a very large straw hat with a large blue bow and lots of feathers. Her father’s haberdashery skills are on full display. The toe of her elegant silver slipper rests on the easel. Clearly, she dressed herself in an outfit she would never wear when painting. In contrast, her students are simply dressed. Her well-appointed studio has a carpet on the parquet wooden floor. A gilded and carved wooden stool with a red velvet cushion holds additional paint brushes. Behind her is a classical portrait bust, and beyond that a statue of a Vestal Virgin. Specially selected Roman women who remained chaste and kept the sacred fires burning in the temple of Vesta received special rights and privileges.
Princess Marie Adelaide, daughter of Louis XV and eldest aunt of Louis XVI, saw great talent in the work of Labille-Guiard. She was responsible for hiring Labille-Guiard to paint portraits of the Madames of France, women of the court who were relatives of the King. Labille-Guiard was awarded a pension of 1000 livres. The subject of “Madame Adelaide” (1787) (106” x76.3’’) (Versailles) is dressed in a flowing, burnt orange velvet coat decorated with heavy gold embroidery. It is worn over a silver and gold brocade gown with lace sleeves and jabot. Her hair adornment of ribbons and lace is not a hat, but may be another Labille-Guiard creation.
Madame Adelaide stands next to an elegant easel on which the cameo portrait of her dead parents and brother are painted. A black velvet curtain has been pulled back to display the work. The towel and pen in her hands may indicate Madame Adelaide has just signed the work. She looks out at viewers as if to get their approval. The marble inlaid floor, the gilded stool with a green velvet and gold fringed cushion, and the gold chair with the green cushioned back set the scene in a palace. On the wall behind her are four tall marble columns with Corinthian capitals. Between the columns is a carved stone relief depicting persons mourning at the side of a death bed. Barely visible between the two columns, a sculptured female figure stands upon a pedestal and holds a burning torch.
“Madame Louisa Elisabeth of France and Son” (1788) (108’’ x63’’) (Versailles) is a posthumous portrait, the subject died of small pox at the age of 32. Her young son Ferdinand holds her hand and looks up at her. Louisa Elisabeth, relaxes against the rail of a porch and looks pensively at the viewer. She wears an elaborate black dress with gold trim, decorative red slashes on the sleeves, and stiff white lace. The bodice is very low cut, not usual in women’s portraits of the time. The red velvet curtain hanging from the roof of the porch, the red velvet on the railing, the red in her hat, and the tiny red point of her shoe tie the composition together. Her unusually well feathered hat is another Labille-Guiard creation. The sun shining across the painting from left to right creates shadows. Her silhouette, particularly her feather hat, appears on the wall behind her. The sun shines fully on the three short pillars of the balustrade, her son’s blond hair, and the hand her son holds. The sun does not shine upon the upper part of her face. The inclusion of the parrot on the balcony railing is an interesting choice. Parrots carry on conversations as they repeat words they have heard and therefore are considered messengers from God.
Labille-Guiard wanted to move toward painting history subjects. She was commissioned to paint the King’s brother in a large history painting. During the French Revolution of 1789, much of the art that depicted royalty was destroyed. The portraits of the Madames of France and a major painting of Marie Antoinette that had been taken to Versailles were spared.
The “Marquise de Lafayette” (1790) (30.75’’ x 24.75’’) (National Museum of Women in the Artist) is presumed to be a portrait of the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, well-known in France for his help to America in the American Revolution. The Marquise is dressed in a simple purple dress with little adornment and no jewelry except for earrings. She is placed in front of an ambiguous landscape, not a royal palace or park. Her attire is within the more subdued and simplistic limits of the early years of the French Revolution.
Labille-Guiard supported the French Revolution, and she found patrons among members of the National Assembly (1789-1791) including Robespierre and Talleyrand. She also was commissioned to paint some history paintings. She proposed on September 23, 1790, that an unlimited number of women be admitted to the Royal Academy and allowed to serve on the governing board. Both motions were approved, but short lived.
Labille-Guiard finally was allotted lodgings in the Louvre in 1795, and was given a new pension of 2000 livres per year. She was the first woman artist to have a studio in the Louvre. Her earlier requests were rejected because of her students were women. The Comte d’Angiviller had advised the King that “all the artists have their lodgings in the Louvre, and as one only gets to all these lodgings through corridors that are often dark, this mixing of young artists of different sexes would be very inconvenient for morals and for the decency of Your Majesty’s palace.”
Labille-Guiard was able to divorce her estranged husband and marry Francois Vincent in 1800. She, her husband, and student Marie Gabrielle Capet moved to a house outside Paris in the town of Pontault-en-Brie. Labille-Guiard and Vincent adopted Capet so she would be able to inherit their estate. Unfortunately, Labille-Guiard became ill and died in 1803 at the age of 54. Her student Capet stayed on to look after Francois Vincent, who died in 1816. “Atelier of Madame Vincent” (1808) (27” x32.8”) was painted by Capet as a tribute to her teacher Labille-Guiard (Mrs. Vincent). Labille-Guiard, dressed in a simple white gown, paints a portrait of the esteemed French painter Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809). Capet sits to her left and looks out at viewers as if to verify they are paying attention. She prepares paint for Madame Vincent. In the black jacket just behind Madame Vincent, her husband points at something in his wife’s painting.
The room is full of watchers. Labille-Guiard and other women painters were often accused of taking credit for works painted by men. Therefore, onlookers were not unusual in the studio of a woman artist. Accusations and rumors of rivalry between women artists and flirtations with male sitters were common, but not true. Male artists’ prejudice against women artists who might steal their clients was rampant.
Labille-Guiard was considered one of the best teachers of her time, and one of the great pastel portraitists. Her reputation suffered after her death, not because she was not a great artist, but because she was a woman artist. Her works and her reputation have been researched and restored by writers in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.