Labille-Guiard, Adelaide (1749–1803)

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Labille-Guiard, Adelaide (1749–1803)

French artist who was one of the great pastel portraitists. Name variations: Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Born in Paris, France, in 1749; died in 1803; youngest of eight children (three of whom survived infancy) of Claude Edmé Labille (a haberdasher) and Marie Anne (Saint-Martin) Labille; married Louis Nicolas Guiard (a financial clerk), in 1769 (legally separated in 1779); no children.

Considered by some to be the greatest woman pastel portraitist after Rosalba Carriera , Adelaide Labille-Guiard overcame numerous obstacles to become one of the most respected artists in Paris during the mid-1780s. A devoted teacher as well as a working artist, she served as both a role model and an advocate for her female students, the most famous of whom was Gabrielle Capet (1761–1817), one of the most distinguished miniature painters of her day.

Labille-Guiard was born in Paris in 1749, the daughter of a haberdasher and one of eight children, of whom only she and her two older sisters survived to adulthood. Although little is known of her early life, it is believed that she attended a convent where she learned to read and write. Her talent was probably apparent at an early age, as her family saw fit to provide her with formal artistic instruction. Her first teacher was François Elie Vincent (1708–1790), a miniaturist whose shop was located close to her father's haberdashery, and she later studied oil painting with Vincent's older son François Andre (1746–1816). In 1769, Labille-Guiard lost her mother and one of her two surviving sisters and also married Louis Nicolas Guiard, a financial clerk. The union was not happy, and she was legally separated ten years later, although she continued to sign her work "Labille f[emme] Guiard" for the rest of her life.

Labille-Guiard was frequently compared to her younger, more outgoing contemporary, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755–1842), and reportedly the two were intense rivals. Both women were royal artists, although Vigée-Le Brun enjoyed the patronage of Marie Antoinette while Labille-Guiard was relegated to the title "Peintre des Mesdames." (Neither artist ever obtained the ultimate title "Peintre du Roi.") Both had many of the same patrons and both were accepted into the prestigious Académie Royale on the same day, May 31, 1783. If there was any ill feeling between the women, it was probably fueled by Vigée-Le Brun, who, according to Germaine Greer , was the more vain and insecure of the two artists. Vigée-Le Brun also included some cutting remarks about Labille-Guiard in her memoirs Souvenirs, although she never mentioned her by name. Labille-Guiard, on the other hand, was so earnest and retiring that any malice on her part seems out of the question. Her portraits, like her

personality, are direct and unpretentious, but lack the flair of Vigée-Le Brun's.

At the time of her marriage, Labille-Guiard was already a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, a less exclusive rival to the Académie Royale, which played a considerable role in fostering female talent until its abolition by royal decree in 1776. From 1769 to 1774, Labille-Guiard was one of a select group of artists to study with Maurice Quenton de la Tour, the great 18th-century master of pastel, and, in 1774, she exhibited a miniature and a pastel at the last exhibition sponsored by the Académie de Saint-Luc before it closed. Her work was not viewed by the public again until 1781, at the Salon de la Correspondence, where she displayed a self-portrait executed in pastels. It is said that when she entered the room where the picture was hung the spectators burst into applause. Greer describes the work as moving beyond the exterior image to reveal the artist's inner character. "Despite the facility of the medium and the characteristic lightness of the effects," writes Greer, "she had rendered even more faithfully than the glimmer of silk and velvet and the froth of lace the impression of an earnest, recollected personality, whose will and courage are overlaid by patience and steadfastness. The depth of the impression made by her steady dark eyes is still remarkable." Labille-Guiard also exhibited several pastels the following year, including a portrait of the sculptor Augustin Pajou at work, which served as yet another example of her ability to capture the inner character of her subject. "Energy flows through the sculptor's strong arm and sensitive fingers," writes Greer in her description of the work, "while the face he turns to the beholder is both masculine and distinguished, kindly and intent."

Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Académie Royale on the strength of her work alone, refusing the advocacy of her friend the Ministre des Arts. She was determined that her fame would be won without assistance and without anyone demanding some part in it. Shortly after her admittance, the Académie Royale voted to limit the number of women members to four, a quota that Labille-Guiard found ludicrous. According to Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin , the artist "circumvented the quota symbolically in her Self-Portrait of 1785 (New York, Metropolitan Museum) by including portraits of two of her students, Gabrielle Capet and Mlle Carreaux de Rosemond , who thus appeared on the walls of the Salon, a point not lost on the spectators."

A supporter of the French Revolution, Labille-Guiard remained in Paris during that volatile time, although her commissions were limited. In 1793, she became a political victim herself when she was forced to destroy her huge, partly finished painting The Reception of a Knight of St. Lazare by Monsieur, Grand Master of the Order, because of its glorification of the monarchy. She had worked on the canvas for two-and-a-half years with hopes that it would secure for her the position of history painter in the Académie. The loss of the work was a personal tragedy from which Labille-Guiard did not recover. One of her last surviving works is an oil painting of Madame de Genlis , a noted musician, writer, and educator.

One of Labille-Guiard's last victories was her access to an apartment in the Louvre, which she obtained in 1795. Her petitions for space there had previously been denied on the grounds that the presence of her young female pupils would be a distraction to the male artists and students in residence. From 1795 to 1799, the artist's output decreased, and by 1800, with her health in decline, she had all but stopped exhibiting. Adelaide Labille-Guiard died in 1803.


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists, 1550–1950. NY: Knopf, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Labille-Guiard, Adelaide (1749–1803)

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