Adélaïde Labille, the daughter of a Paris shopkeeper, was married at the age of twenty to Louis Nicolas Guiard, a clerk from whom she later separated. She began her studies with a miniaturist and then joined the Paris guild, the Académie de Saint-Luc. In 1774, having received instruction from the
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, she showed a miniature and a pastel at the guild exhibition, and two years later she entered the studio of the academically trained history painter and portraitist François André Vincent, who had recently returned from the
. She was versed in a variety of artists’ materials, had exhibited twice at the Salon de la Correspondance, was an experienced teacher of aspiring
, and had cultivated a wide acquaintance among academicians, when, in 1783, she was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture at the same session as
. Labille-Guiard’s path to entry was certainly the more traditional one for an aspiring woman artist working of necessity outside the academy—she moved from miniatures to full-scale portraiture, from pastels to oils, and from one artist’s studio to another for training—but both women were astute about their professional advancement and careful in the choice of sitters whose portraits they exhibited.
Labille-Guiard understood the value of the
to the advancement of her career and showed regularly (which is to say every other year from 1783 through 1791) through the start of the French Revolution, contributing to the final exhibition of 1791, which was not limited to members and candidate members of the Académie Royale but was open to all. In 1783, her submissions included an actor in the role of King Lear and a head of Cleopatra, indicating that she had an interest in exploring historical subjects, even if only in the form of single figures. Pastels figured among her contributions in fairly large numbers. Of the roughly fifty paintings she showed, a dozen were portraits of academicians, including two portraits of herself. Madame Guiard also had support from members of the
: in 1787, she was named official painter to Louis XVI’s maiden aunts, the Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire. That same year, she exhibited a full-length state portrait of the former, and two years later a corresponding portrait of Victoire and a third portrait of their oldest (deceased) sister, Madame Élisabeth, duchesse de Parme (all three belong to the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon). In 1791, Labille-Guiard presented a series of portraits of prominent members of the Assemblée Nationale.
The most important work by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard is her Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (
). Signed and dated 1785 and exhibited in the Salon of the same year, this lifesize, full-length portrait of a modern woman seated before her easel teaching younger women to paint by her example is a bold statement. It suggests the artist’s intention as a recently elected academician to try to increase the number of females who were enrolled and promote their gifts and their standing within the academy. (This was no small aim when Louis XVI had recently reiterated through his arts minister that the maximum number of women members would stand at four and that no increase would be contemplated.) The self-portrait may be seen in Pietro Antonio Martini’s
of the Salon (
), prominently displayed in the middle rank on the wall to the right. In 1998, the Museum purchased a large black, red, and white chalk (trois crayons
) study for the heads of the two young women (
), a very rare drawing by the artist. Her interest was in studying the fall of strong light on the faces of the two pupils, especially that of Carreaux de Rosemond, which is largely in shadow.
Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth de France (
), grew up in the orbit of the Mesdames, and it is therefore not surprising that she too sat for Labille-Guiard. The pastel study, showing her wearing a redingote, or riding coat, and a fichu, emphasizes her naturalness and sweet character and is preliminary to a three-quarter-length portrait in which she is shown in court dress seated at a writing desk (private collection). The finished work was shown at the Salon of 1787. In the pastel, a close-up of the head was begun on a single sheet later enlarged all around to form a more finished oval on seven sheets. A fine, large study of a woman in black and colored chalks on toned paper is signed and inscribed with the artist’s name and dated 1789 (
). The figure, wearing a chemise that has slipped from her shoulders, slumps wearily against the back of a chair. Her hair spills from the striped cotton cloth with which it is bound. The drawing may serve as a reminder of the difficulty women artists had in finding models and of the likelihood that they took sittings from their students. The sitter has been identified by Joseph Baillio and Perrin Stein as Labille-Guiard’s pupil Marie Gabrielle Capet.
Recognized as a distinguished portraitist, Labille-Guiard held republican sentiments and never left her native country. However, as was the case with most artists remaining in France, and many who went abroad, her production slowed during the Revolution and the Terror. The Académie Royale was shut down by order of the Assemblée Nationale in 1793, and the various successor institutions barred female members. She continued to exhibit in later life but was little noticed. Labille-Guiard divorced when this became possible and in 1800 married her former teacher Vincent. She died in 1803.