Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Self Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A slight change of plan – rather than talking about a painting by a man this week, as I had planned to – even if it does impinge upon one of my Three Women in the 18th Century – I wanted to talk about another of the remarkable women who isn’t one of my three subjects. Trust me, there are plenty more! Born as Adélaïde Labille in Paris in 1749, she married Nicolas Guiard at the age of 20, but, unlike most women of the time, she held on to her family name, thus becoming the double-barrelled artist we know (although not nearly well enough) today. And this is despite separating formally from Guiard when she was 30 (they divorced, finally, in 1793 when new laws came in), and later marrying the artist François-André Vincent at the age of 50, just four years before she died.
This is her undoubted masterpiece. We see her seated, at work on a medium-sized canvas, which is resting on an easel at the left of the painting. She fixes her eyes on us with a focussed, penetrating gaze – although the conventions of self portraiture remind us that she is fixing her eyes on herself, looking in a mirror, assessing her own appearance, in order to immortalise it on the canvas placed in front of her. Behind stand the two pupils of the title, fashionably but not showily dressed – like their ‘master’ – one looking towards us/the mirror, the other looking at the work in progress – which we would assume to be the finished painting we are now enjoying. However, as this triple portrait measures 211 x 151 cm, it must be substantially larger than the canvas on the easel.
Let’s start from the bottom up. This detail alone must surely qualify Labille-Guiard as ‘the best artist most people have never even heard of’ – just look at that floor! A highly polished parquet, not unlike the ‘parquet de Versailles’ introduced in 1684, it has rectangles of wood, set so as to look as if they have been woven, framing smaller squares, the whole unit being contained within a diamond (you can see this more clearly in another painting, below). One of these diamonds is set symmetrically within the portrait, with a corner at the front centre of the painting, and two sides leading our eyes diagonally back in both directions, left and right. Placed parallel to these diagonals are the easel on the left, and a stool on the right. The latter is giltwood, upholstered with red velvet, and on it are resting a roll of paper, a pink cloth and a porte-crayon, or, simply put, a crayon holder. The paper would be for preparatory drawings, or perhaps, for pastel paintings. There is an old tradition that Labille-Guiard studied for a while with Maurice Quentin de la Tour, the undoubted master of the art, although there is no firm evidence to support this. Nevertheless, she regularly exhibited pastels – hence the porte-crayon – until the mid-1780s, from which time she increasingly focussed on larger-scale oil paintings. The fabric of her dress is sublime, a steely blue, lined with ivory, the precise width of the hem visible where it lies on the ground, and a seam, as carefully painted as the original was no doubt minutely stitched, falling diagonally towards the front leg of the easel. And – miracle of miracles – the steely blue is reflected in the high finish of the parquet. The toes of one delicately clad foot rest on the cross bar of the easel, catching the light with a brilliant sheen, while the other foot is further back in the shadows.
Her palette rests in the crook of her left arm, which is itself resting on her slightly raised left thigh. Running across her lap is the mahl stick, used as a rest for the painting hand when working on delicate details. No need for that now, though, as she is blocking out some less-detailed area with a broad-handled brush. She holds at least six more brushes in her left hand. Behind the projecting brushes is the lid of a box which can be locked – the key hole can be seen just below the mahl stick. This would have contained all of her materials – pigments, oil, etc. We can see the back of the canvas, with lengths of wood nailed together to form the stretcher, and around the stretcher, as its name would suggest, is stretched the canvas, tacked along the edge at regular intervals. There is no waste of material: the canvas only just reaches the back edge of the stretcher in some places. Once the painting was framed, of course, this would not be seen. The student on the right – Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond, who was to die just three years after this portrait was completed – rests her left hand delicately on the back of Madame Guiard’s chair – giltwood, upholstered in green – with her right arm around her companion’s shoulder. This is Marie-Gabrielle Capet, Guiard’s favourite student, who lived with her both before and after the second marriage, and remained even after her death, caring for Monsieur Vincent. Capet has her left arm around Carreaux de Rosemond’s back – a real sense of sisterhood. Labille-Guiard has created a great team.
The ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ gazes in this painting intrigue me. At the back, in the shadows, is a full-length, standing female sculpture. I’m not entirely sure what she is holding, but I suspect it is a brazier, with a stylised flame reaching up. The figure is wearing classical robes, but I would assume this is a contemporary, neo-classical sculpture, rather than an original Roman figure (but I could be wrong). My guess would be that it represents Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. How perfect, for the homely, familial atmosphere the artist has created. And then there is a classical – or neo-classical – portrait bust. Labille-Guiard might be stating her qualifications for the job: a knowledge and understanding of the classical past, of tonal values, and of their ability to create three dimensional form. Plus, as a painter, she has the added advantage of colour, which the sculptures lack. The colour brings the people to life. Vesta looks from left to right, her gaze parallel to the picture plane, whereas the bust look diagonally out to the right: his gaze is at an angle of 45° to hers. Labille-Guiard and Capet look out to the front – at 90° to Vesta – whereas Carreaux de Rosemond looks more-or-less directly to the left – in the opposite direction to the standing sculpture, although somewhat further forward. In this way the gazes define the space around and behind them, looking across several different axes, while also communicating the very idea of looking and of sight – the sense on which painting relies (if not the only one it evokes). Within this nexus of glances – real and imagined – it is entirely fitting that Labille-Guiard and Capet have the same point of view. They both look towards us – the imagined mirror – and the older painter may well have hoped that her similarly minded pupil would one day inherit her tradition. Carreaux de Rosemond, on the other hand, looks at the latest masterpiece with almost incredulous admiration – there is even a sense of love in her expression, as her mouth falls open with unvoiced praise. Capet looks at us, Rosemond at the painting, and it is as if there is only one pupil, alternating her attention between the reality she sees in the world – us – and the identical fiction being created on the canvas. Reality and illusion look the same: Labille-Guiard must be a superb artist, we are told. But we are also being told what to do – Labille-Guiard and Capet look at us, so we look back at them: they draw us in. But then Carreaux de Rosemond is so clearly captivated by the work in progress that we want to turn our attention towards this breath-taking creation, and see it for ourselves – only to be frustrated by a view of the back and side of the canvas, and the blind stare of the portrait bust: like the marble, we cannot see what is being painted. But we want to, and, I suspect, even if frustrated, we are more than happy with what we can see: this masterful (and I use the word advisedly) portrait.
As for the precise nature of Madame Labille-Guiard’s gaze – well, it is enigmatic, even sphinx-like. She is fashionably clad in a straw hat, the like of which Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun had portrayed herself wearing just three years before. Around the crown a ribbon of the same steely blue as her dress is tied in a large bow, and a white ostrich feather is pinned on. The pin is left visible as yet another display of virtuosa skill – enhanced still further by the slim shadow of the pin falling across the feather behind it. She wears gold earrings, one in the light, the other in shadow: this is another trick that Vigée Le Brun had deployed – although with pearl drop earrings – in her self portrait (see below). But what does Labille-Guiard expression communicate? What is she thinking? Is this a cold appraisal of her own appearance? Is she seeking approval in our eyes? Perhaps this is mock modesty as we show the same appreciation as Carreaux de Rosemond. Or maybe she is being ever-so-slightly flirtatious, lips slightly parted, teeth visible, light glistening on her lower lip. You’ll have to decide for yourselves.
It is a truly glorious painting, I think, and one in a long line of women showing themselves at work. I have written about several of these already, whether it be Catherina van Hemessen, Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster, or Labille-Guiard’s contemporary, Vigée Le Brun. But this has an added extra: she shows her self at work, seated at her easel, like the others, but with her pupils. Yes – she had pupils (so did Judith Leyster, as it happens, and she sued when they left her to be taught by a man – but that’s another story). Today we are looking a fantastic painting, a great work of art – but it is also a political statement. In 1783 both Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Vigée Le Brun had initially been barred as she was married to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, and the oh-so-academic Academicians would have no truck with anyone associated with the market (laudable, perhaps, but under the circumstances, hypocritical: they all wanted to sell). Fortunately Vigée Le Brun was now close to the Queen, and, as an Académie Royale the Academicians could hardly fail to do what the royalty requested – and so Vigée Le Brun was ‘received’ as a full member – as was Labille-Guiard. However, the Académie insisted that from that point on they would only admit a maximum of four women. Labille-Guiard was not having it. Two years later she exhibited this painting at the annual Salon. It is effectively a manifesto, making clear that there were far more than four women who merited admission.
It was widely assumed that, as Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were two of the ‘four’, they must be rivals, and apparently there are stories to prove it. However, this supposed rivalry had another effect. According to a recently published book (which, like so many others, I haven’t had the chance to read), the myth of their rivalry meant that each woman’s work was only ever compared to that of the other, and not to that of their male contemporaries – yet another mechanism by which the work of women artists has been marginalised. If you are interested, here is a link to Friendship in Enlightenment France by Jessica L. Fripp. It grabbed my attention because this painting is on the cover.
Was there a rivalry between Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard? I doubt it! They both had more than enough work: Paris was large enough for the two of them. It would be easy for them to go their separate ways – and before long, they did. As the French Revolution loomed both were criticised for the royal patronage they enjoyed, but Labille-Guiard stuck it out in Paris. Among others, she lost the patronage of the Mesdames de France – the elderly maiden aunts of Louis XVI – and was told to destroy several royalist portraits. She carried on painting though, but as she died in 1803 she never really made it through to the ‘promised land’ of liberté, égalité, and sororité, and her name has all but been forgotten. Not so Vigée Le Brun: as painter to the Queen she was more heavily implicated – and so she fled France. But if you want to know more about that, then why not join me on Monday for Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: How not to lose your Head at 2pm or 6pm? Meanwhile, I shall leave you with a charming painting by one of the pupils – Marie-Gabrielle Capet – showing The Atelier of Madame Vincent. Labille-Guiard, under the name of her second husband, is more practically dressed now, but could be sitting at the same easel, on the same parquet floor, with the same paint box. She looks towards an elderly gent in a blue and gold cape, in the same way that previously she looked towards us. And Capet sits at her right hand, palette and brush ready, looking towards us – or at a mirror – to paint the present scene. À bientôt!