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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

Self-Portrait with Two Pupils ,1785, Adelaide Labille-Guiard.
I wonder if they really painted wearing satin and feathered hats. 
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self-portrait,
(miniature), ca. 1774-75
In a little over two years, the United States of American may have a woman president. If so, it will mean there are no heights to which the female of our species may not aspire...well, except for Pope, perhaps. Great Britain has had her Margaret Thatcher, India its Indira Ghandi, Argentina its Evita, Germany today has Angela Merkel, and regardless of your political stripes, few would deny that these and other female heads of state have been any less effective than their male counterparts over the centuries. Today, "glass ceiling" be damned, I could list an honor roll of women who have risen to the top of their professions; and more than that, made significant, even historic, contributions to their calling. In the fine arts, I would go so far as to say the numbers of men and women are about even, though varying by discipline. That's not say there's no tendency toward male domination, as would remain the case in virtually all professions except perhaps education, the culinary arts, and the performing arts.
Atelier of Madame Vincent (Adelaide Labille-Guiard), 1808, Marie-Gabrielle Capet,
painted after Adelaide's death in 1803.
Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun, Self-portrait
(not a miniature), 1790
As the old, sexist, cigarette ad used to proclaim, "You've come a long way, babe" (including the incidence of lung cancer). In 18th-century French portrait painting, out of the hundreds of male professionals, there were exactly two women who could be called outstanding--Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun, (right) her due, I'd be derelict in not taking a look at the work of Labille-Guiard. There work is comparable, the better of the two open to some debate, though the bottom line might suggest Vigee Lebrun to be just slightly better. (I tend to waiver between the two on that score.) England had Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser as token members of their Royal Academy. Italy had Rosalba Carriera and the inimitable Artemesia Gentileschi. The Dutch and the Germans couldn't even claim tokenism until well into the 20th century. The same goes for the Russians, we Americans, the orient, and the smaller, cultural backwater nations of eastern Europe.

Portrait of Madame Elisabeth (detail, full-size, below, left),
1788, Adelaide Labille-Guiard
Portrait of Madame Elisabeth,
1788, Adelaide Labille-Guiard
Though the English painted some outstanding portraits during the 18th century, the French, in my humble opinion, were better--the Dutch, perhaps the best of all, but without the input of the feminine set. Thus Lebrun and Labille-Guiard were among the best portrait painters (of either sex) in Europe at the time. The 1788 portrait of Madame Elisabeth (left) is typical of Labille-Guiard's accomplished technique and lavish, Rococo style as seen in the detailed image above. Though the ladies loved her, and constituted the bulk of her portraits, she was just as adept painting men and the equal of any male portrait painter Paris had to offer. Such training, such expertise, did not come easily. Adelaide's story is remarkably similar to that of Lebrun, and their English counterparts--one of determined struggle against great odds to gain respect in the overwhelmingly male art world at the time.

Adelaide Labille was born in Paris in 1749. Her father was a middle-class shop owner--a haberdasher. His shop on the Rue neuve des Petits Champs was named "A La Toilette," which, near as I can translate, means just what it appears--The Toilet. Those Frenchmen do have a peculiar sense of humor. One of her father's shop clerks was the beautiful, eighteen-year-old Madame du Barry, who later became the mistress of Louis XV. She and Adelaide were good friends (it always helps to know the right people). So little is known of Adelaide's early art training, it might even be suggested that she may have taught herself to paint miniature portraits. Few artists at the time accepted female apprentices (at least not through the front door). If this was the case in Adelaide's case, the incredible self-taught precision of her 1774 miniature self-portrait (top, right), makes her later success all the more remarkable. (She would have been twenty-five at the time.)

François-André Vincent, 1795,
Adelaide Labille-Guiard, her long-time
lover and eventual husband.
Adelaide Labille became Adelaide Labille-Guiard in 1769 when, at the age of twenty, she married a government clerk named Nicolas Guiard. The marriage lasted ten years, and when they separated, she kept his name. At some uncertain point, Adelaide Labille-Guiard did find an artist who would accept her as an apprentice, though he was by no means a top-tier portrait painter (bottom-tier maybe). His name was François-Elie Vincent. Whatever training Adelaide gained from Vincent was sufficient to bring her under the tutelage of the master of pastel portraits, Quentin de la Tour. However, mostly what Adelaide got from Francois Elie Vincent was not training but a second husband (albeit, 20 years later), his son, who was also a painter, François-André Vincent, the 1768 winner of the Prix de Rome and more importantly, a member of the French Royal Academy. They were not married until 1799, and her long-term association (affair) with Vincent was not enough to gain her membership in the Academy, but his influence didn't hurt when it came to landing lucrative portrait commissions and thus acquiring a name for herself in her own right.

Adelaide Labille-Guiard had been a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc for several years, one of some 130 women members competing for the name recognition. Among them was Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun who was slightly younger and against whom she often competed in the Académie de Saint-Luc Salons. These salons were, in fact becoming so successful they began to compete with the Royal Academy Salons until the Academy suddenly shut down its competition with a royal decree in 1777. Adelaide turned to her award-winning boyfriend for additional art instruction and through his advice and influence, finally managed to become one of the first women admitted to the Royal Academy in 1783. Vigee Lebrun and two other women joined her in their assault on this exalted bastion of male paint daubers.

Princess Adelaide, 1787, Adelaide Labille-Guiard
Marie Louise Victoire, ca. 1790,
Adelaide Labille Guiard
In the French art world at the time, a highly prized membership in the Royal Academy did not guarantee success as an artist, but very little could be achieved financially without it. In Adelaide's case, with Louis XVI as a client, she received a yearly stipend of one-thousand livres and commissions to paint the princess Marie Adélaïde (above, daughter of Louis XV), her sister Victoire-Louise (right), and the king's sister, Elisabeth. They all apparently liked what they saw inasmuch as the king's brother, later Louis XVIII got into the act and commissioned Labille-Guiard's largest painting, a historic work titled Réception d'un chevalier de Saint-Lazare par Monsieur, Grand maître de l'ordre (Receipt of a Knight of Saint-Lazare by Monsieur, Grand Master of the Order) with the king's brother front and center. The effort brought her a doubling of her pension and a studio in the Louvre. However being a royal painter was not without certain complications. The French Revolution got her entangled in radical politics and forced her to destroy some of her royal works, apparently including the historic monstrosity mentioned above. She died in 1803 at the age of fifty-four.


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