In my last blog I looked at the life of the eighteenth century French artist, Anne Vallayer-Coster and featured a number of her exquisitely painted floral still-life works. In today´s blog I am looking at the life and works of a contemporary of hers, the talented French miniaturist and portrait painter, Adélaide Labille-Guiard.
Adélaïde Labille was born in Paris in April 1749, the youngest of eight children, to Marie-Anne Saint-Martin and Claude-Edme Labille. Her father was a marchand du corps de la mercerize (a haberdasher) and he and his wife owned a haberdashery shop, La Toilette, in the rue Neuve des Petits-Champs, at the heart of the capital. Their home was also situated on this street. The shop became very popular and by the 1760’s it had built up an élite clientele. One interesting fact about the family shop was that in 1761 a young girl, Jeanne Antoinette Bécu, applied to work in it, was taken on and became friends with Adélaïde. Whilst there she met the comte du Barry, became his mistress, left the shop and would later become la maitresse-en-titre, the chief mistress of Louis XV.
Giving birth to eight children took its toll on Adélaïde´s mother and she was often laid low with one illness after another. In 1768, when Adélaïde was nineteen years old, her mother died. Little is known about Adélaïde’s siblings except that one of her older sisters, Félicité, married the painter and art collector, Jean Antoine Gros in 1764. However in a letter Adélaïde wrote to Comtesse d´Angiviller in 1783, she said she was the only surviving member of the family.
So what made Adélaïde want to become an artist? One reason could be the location of the family home, which was close to the Palais Royale and had become the hub of theatres, music halls and dance halls but was also home to a large collection of professional artists as it was close to the Louvre, which at the time was the headquarters of the Académie Royale. The most talented artists of the time, who were willing to comply with the strict guidelines of the Académie, had become members of this august establishment but many others painters who failed to be accepted into the halls of the institution had become members of the city’s trade guild, the Academy of Saint Luke. It is thought that Adélaïde may have got her earliest artistic tuition from some of her artistic neighbours, one of whom was the Swiss-born painter of portrait miniatures, François-Élie Vincent, a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, who also lived in rue Neuve des Petits-Champs. In 1769, Adélaïde, aged twenty, joined his classes and it was during this time as Vincent’s apprentice that she was able to exhibit some of her work at the Académie de Saint-Luc. This was also the year she married. Her husband was Louis-Nicolas Guiard who was an official in the Treasury of the Clergy and who lived on the same street as Adélaïde. The ceremony took place at the local church of St Eustace on August 25th 1769. The marriage contract recorded that Adélaïde was a professional painter at the Académie de Saint-Luc.
Five years on, in 1774, Adélaïde had moved on artistically to work with pastels under the tutelage of the distinguished seventy year old French pastelist, Maurice-Quentin de la Tour who had his studio a few blocks away from Adélaïde’s home. It is believed that Adélaïde had been introduced to him by one of his former students and a neighbour of hers, the Swedish portraitist Alexander Roslin. Roslin, an Academician since 1753, was married to the painter, Marie Suzanne Giroud, and was a great believer in women’s right to become artists and was aware of the problems they had in trying to progress as professional painters. Art historians believe that Roslin was the person who would later put forward Adélaïde’s name to become a member of the Académie Royale.
Three years on, around 1777, she started to work in oils and her introduction to, and tuition in this painting media came from François-André Vincent the son of her former tutor. He was to become a leader of the neoclassical and historical movement in French art. They became very close and such closeness fuelled rumours of a romantic tryst between the two artists. Whether such rumours damaged her marriage or whether there were other reasons, the couple went their own separate ways in 1777 and her child-less marriage to Guiard ended in legal separation in 1779. Adélaïde however kept signing her work Labille-Guiard. The relationship between Adélaïde and Vincent is examined in the 2012 book by Elizabeth Mansfield, entitled The Perfect Foil: François-André Vincent and the Revolution in French Painting and in it she suggests that the pair had been very close as far back as 1769 when she worked in his father’s studio, but the fact that he was a Protestant found little favour with Adélaïde’s father and so marriage was not a possibility. However following the separation from her husband and after the reformation of divorce laws, the couple were able to marry in 1800.
Adélaïde’s second husband François-André Vincent, being a talented artist and having the right connections, became a student at the Académie Royal in 1765, three years later won the prestigious Académie prize, Prix de Rome and was awarded a four-year scholarship at the Palazzo Mancini, the French Academy school in Rome. On his return to Paris in 1782 he was made a full Academician. For Adélaïde, her artistic journey was far more difficult. Females wishing to become artists struggled to receive artistic training unless they had family members who were artists and who had their own studios but this was not the case for Adélaïde whose father was a merchant. However as I said earlier she did eventually secure artistic tuition and with the support of Roslin she became a member of the Académie Royale on May 31st 1783, the same day in which Élizabeth Vigée-Lebrun was received into the Academy. The addition of these two females to the Academy brought the number of female Academicians to four. Anne Vallayer-Coster, the floral and still life painter and the miniaturist, Marie-Thérèse Réboul, also known as Madame Vien being the other two Academicians. A royal decree had set a cap of four female Academicians at any one time. The French Arts Minister, comte d’Angiviller, had obtained the royal ruling and had stated that such a cap would be sufficient to honour the talent of female artists but added condescendingly that they could never be useful to the progress of the arts!
In 1780 Adélaïde had set up her own studio and had accepted a group of women pupils, several of whom went on to become successful portraitists. By 1784, her reputation as a gifted art teacher was firmly established and one of her most famous works, which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is her 1785 work entitled Self–Portrait with Two Pupils, Mademoiselle Marie Gabrielle Capet and Mademoiselle Carreaux de Rosemond, which highlights her role as a tutor. The work has often been construed as a piece of propaganda, symbolising the dispute over the role of women in the Academy. She has portrayed herself in her studio which is richly furnished and this was her way of denoting her favourable financial situation. She is seated in front of a large canvas and behind her stand two of her students, Marie Gabrielle Capet and Mademoiselle Carreaux de Rosemond, who have been depicted in much plainer clothes. Adélaïde wears a sumptuous and expensive low cut gown and large plumed hat neither of which would have been worn by an artist at work but is more likely to be a declaration of her femininity, and the fact that she is an artist who moved in high society. The feminist stand on art education was further enhanced by the inclusion of her two female students both of whom would become great artists in their own right. In the background she has included the bust of the Vestal Virgin as an additional emphasis of the feminist mood of the time. One can tell by this work that she had a great belief in herself as an artist. So if she wanted to paint a self-portrait, why include two other people in the work? The reason for their inclusion is probably two-fold. First of all, because she was a strong proponent of the education of women artists, it is her statement of belief that females should receive artistic tuition and secondly she is demonstrating her ability as a group portraitist and this painting received critical acclaim when it was exhibited which led to many commissions for family group portraits. This was indeed a clever self advertisement by the artist. One of the pupils in the painting, Marie Gabrielle Capet, became Adélaïde’s close friend and her favourite student. She became a miniaturist and pastel portraitist in her own right and lived with Adélaïde Labille-Guiard before and after the artist’s marriage to Vincent. After Adélaïde died Marie Gabrielle Capet remained in the house and continued to care for Adélaïde’s husband.
Labille-Guillard was an extremely talented portraitist and unlike her fellow Academician, Lebrun, she received portrait commissions from both sides of society, members of the aristocracy as well as revolutionary figures. She also received royal commissions and one of her royal patrons was Princess Marie Adélaïde, the aunt of Louis XVI and through this received an annual government pension of 1000 livres. Labille-Guiard painted the portrait of the princess and her sister, Princess Victoire-Louise, as well as a portrait of the sister of Louis XVI, Princess Élisabeth. Because of these royal commissions to paint portraits of female family members of Louis XVI, she came to be known as Peintre des Mesdames. She would normally have been also allowed a studio at the royal court but because her pupils were female that was not to be. However such royal patronage, in some ways, made Labille-Guiard politically vulnerable at the time of the French Revolution of 1789 and she was made to destroy a number of her portraits of court members of the fallen monarchy and for a time she decided, for her own safety, to leave Paris. At the Salon exhibition of 1791 she exhibited portraits of two prominent members of the French National Assembly, Maximilien Robespierre and Armand, duc d’Aiguillon.
In 1795 Adélaïde was granted artists’ lodgings at the Louvre and had her government pension enhanced to 2000 livres. As a member of the Académie Royale she continued to regularly exhibit her portraits at the Salon until 1800. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard died in April 1803, aged 54.
Whilst researching the life of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard I came across a book entitled Adélaïde Labille-Guiard – Artist in the Age of Revolution by Laura Auricchio. It is from this literary work that I gleaned most of the information regarding her life. I can highly recommend the book if you want to find out more about the artist and study some of her exquisite works.