Saturday, October 15, 2011

Adelaide Labille-Guilard - Self-Portrait with Two Pupils

Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Self Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Adelaide Labille-Guilard first trained as a miniaturist and then learned the art of pastel painting from the preeminent Maurice Quentin de la Tour.   Not only was Labille-Guiard an exceptional artist but she was also an astute promoter. Before she was admitted as an academician she exhibited a series of pastel portraits of the most prominent academicians including the director at the Salon de la Correspondence (a commercial exhibition) which must have drawn enough attention for them to be familiar with her name.  She was accepted into the Academie in 1783 along with Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun.  She did not have a royal patron like Vigee-LeBrun nor did she have the privileges accorded a full academician of a salary.  She was training female artists at her studio but she also needed to attract wealthy patrons. 

 Labille-Guiard composed her portraits like large scale history paintings.  In this huge canvas we see an artist working at her easel as her two pupil look-on with admiration.  She engages the viewer by placing them in the position of the subject that she is painting.  Labille-Guiard has positioned herself in the middle of the canvas dressed as an aristocratic lady in a very fashionable, low-cut, satin dress, powdered hair and hat with bows and feathers.  According to Laura Auricchio, her pose and costume would have been instantly recognizable as the images from the published fashion plates that were so popular among the elite audience of fashionable women who were also very desirable patrons.1 She seems to be giving an all-encompassing impression of herself in this self-portrait. On the one hand she is dressed provocatively - her ample bosom is placed at the center of the painting and her little foot peeks under her dress - and on the other, she has two statues behind her one of her father and the other the Vestal Virgin - the former lending a sense of propriety and the latter a sense of  virtue.  She is claiming this is her studio and she is being watched over by her father and the Virgin.

She has shown an incredible mastery with her paints while depicting all the different light effects and textures. The intricacies of her dress are portrayed so realistically that the seams and even the wrinkles are very obvious.  The students in the back are standing in a contrapposto pose which is a concept developed in Classical sculpture and cannot be seen in Jacques-Louis David's figures until after the revolution. The  painting was a huge success.  She was considered to be one step away from a history painter.

Compared to her contemporary Vigee-LeBrun's soft rococo paintings Labille-Guiard's work was always considered more masculine.  Her work was so exceptional that some believed it was actually painted by her lover.  They could not conceive of such mastery in a female.  There were even pamphlets circulating at this time besmirching her name, containing lewd comments that she had to make a complaint about. But being the ever-resourceful woman that she was, she wrote to the wife of the director asking her to intervene on her behalf.  She went on to describe what a stain on her honor would do to her old lonely father.  With a little female intervention, action was taken to arrest and interrogate the printer and seize the pamphlets.2 Labille-Guiard had turned a negative situation into a positive with very influential allies on her side.

Madame Adailade of France, one of the daughters of Louis XIV, wanted to purchase the Self-Portrait with two Pupils but Labille-Guiard would not sell it and instead painted a portrait of the Princess of France in a very similar style as her own.  Mademe Adailade and her sisters became Labille-Guiard's major patrons and since she associated herself with the generation that was previous to the present ruler, she was not targeted by the Revolutionaries. She even painted a portrait of Maximilien Robespierre.

Jacques-Louis David,
The Oath of the Horatii, 1785
(Musee du Louvre)
Unfortunately, over the years, Labille-Guiard was not as widely recognized as her contemporary Vigee-LeBrun who made the cover of a current Survey of Art book while her name doesn't even come up in the index section.  I think this talented artist as well as shrewd businesswoman deserves to be recognized as a painter of the top caliber not just a female portraitist, afterall she risked the wrath of a society who firmly believed the female's place was in the home, behind closed doors, taking care of her children.   Just for the level of success she achieved in 18th century society she deserves to be mentioned with the canons of her generation.; this painting could have been hanging right next to David's monumental Oath of the Horatii. 

1  Auricchio, Lauren. "Self-promotion in Adelaide Labille-Guiard's 1785 Self-Portrait with Two Students." Art Bulletin (2007). 51 
2  Ibid., 48

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