Happy Birthday, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard!

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) was a celebrated female artist in 18th-century France. Labille-Guiard’s artistic career was hindered by the changes in power surrounding the French Revolution and was somewhat restricted due to her gender, but she was also awarded unusual opportunities.

Labille-Guiard received formal training under a family friend, François-Elie Vincent, because women were not allowed in the classrooms of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Society deemed it improper for women to learn alongside men. She trained as a miniaturist, and in 1774, at the age of 25, Labille-Guiard exhibited two works at the Salon. Three years later, she broke gender norms by painting in oils, which she learned from François-André Vincent, the son of her former instructor.

Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Royal Academy on May 31, 1783—the same day as Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. Because both women were primarily portraitists they were cast as competitors, but this was likely not the case, as they had little interaction besides their involvement in Academy Salons. The Royal Academy limited membership to four women at a time, so the simultaneous admission of two women caused controversy among members who did not support the inclusion of women. With the admission of Labille-Guiard and Vigée-LeBrun, the Academy reached its quota for women artists, together with the portrait and still-life painter Anne Vallayer-Coster and miniaturist Marie-Thérèse Reboul Vien. Labille-Guiard signed the Academy’s register as “Adélaïde des Vertues” to represent the fact that women artists risked upsetting societal expectations, which held that virtuous women belonged solely to the private, domestic sphere.

Her admittance to the Academy, commissions from Louis XVI’s sisters, and the creation of her masterpiece Self Portrait with Two Pupils (1785) increased her reputation and popularity, despite rumors spread by critics following her Academy debut. However, her career faced challenges that would slow her momentum as the French Revolution progressed. Radicals shamed Labille-Guiard for her association with the Paris elite and their lavish lifestyles. Prominent painter Jacques-Louis David did not approve of women in the Academy, and Labille-Guiard fell further out of favor. At this point, a government committee ordered her to submit works, including her largest painting, to be burned.

Labille-Guiard left Paris for the countryside as the Reign of Terror worsened. She did not abandon her painting during this time, continuing to teach students who fled with her. She eventually returned to Paris, but was unable to return to prominence under the new government. Despite working during a time of social and political upheaval, the life and career of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard is one of opportunity and strength, as she was allowed entry into the Academy in recognition of her talents, and continued to practice as an artist despite oppressive radical forces.

Meghan Masius is the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Legacy of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun

Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection presents portraiture by 18th-century French women artists, who struggled past a lack of training, negative opinion, and political turmoil to attain professional success. Only a small number of women were successful in exhibiting at the Salon, the preeminent art exhibition in France. Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, however, achieved success and inspired future generations of artists.

Renowned during her lifetime, Vigée-LeBrun (1755–1842) served as the preferred portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette in the late 1770s. She joined the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783, the same day as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, via a special edict from King Louis XVI. She applied by exhibiting an allegorical painting very similar to her composition for Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice, copied by Francesco Bartolozzi in a 1783 engraving. The great number of prints that were made after her paintings attest to the popularity of Vigée-LeBrun’s work.

Left to right: Francesco Bartolozzi, Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice, 1783, after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1779, Engraving on paper; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay and Unknown artist, Marie Antoinette Holding a Rose, n.d., after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1783, Pastel on paper; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left to right: Francesco Bartolozzi’s Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice, 1783, after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1779, Engraving on paper; and an unknown artist’s Marie Antoinette Holding a Rose, n.d., after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1783, Pastel on paper; Both: NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Vigée-LeBrun exhibited two portraits of Marie Antoinette in succession during the Salon of 1783. The first portrait, featuring the queen in a white muslin dress, caused a public outcry. An image of the queen en chemise (clothing not typically worn in public) was deemed inappropriate. Vigée-LeBrun claimed in her memoirs that it was the queen’s wish to be depicted in the muslin gown, yet the artist capitulated to critics and replaced the portrait with another painting showing the queen in a blue gown. In Salon Style, a bust-length pastel copy of the second painting testifies to the popularity of Vigée-LeBrun’s portraits.

For her own safety during the French Revolution, Vigée-LeBrun left the country in 1789 and did not return until 1805. She continued to paint during her exile, and she exhibited work at the Salon to critical acclaim. Vigée-LeBrun spent much of her time abroad in Russia, where she painted portraits of women and children from the Russian aristocracy.

Charles Bianchini, Self-portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, ca. 1880–1900, copy after the original, 1790, Oil on canvas; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Charles Bianchini, Self-portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, ca. 1880–1900, copy after the original, 1790, Oil on canvas; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Her portrait of Princess Anna Grigorieva Belosselsky Belozersky shows the wealthy 26-year-old woman, daughter of Catherine the Great’s secretary of state, wearing a fashionable turban-style headdress. Her mother’s family was involved in the lucrative mining industry, which may be referenced through her amber earring and necklace.

While Vigée-LeBrun was in Rome in 1790, she painted her self-portrait for that city’s Academy of St. Luke, to which she was admitted as a member. Vigée-LeBrun’s fame inspired multiple copies of that self-portrait, which still hangs in Rome. Painter and designer Charles Bianchini (1860–1905) created a faithful copy of her painting—further evidence of Vigée-LeBrun’s continued popularity.

Visit the museum to see works by trailblazing artists like Vigée-LeBrun. Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection is on view through May 22, 2016.

Venetian Virtuoso: Rosalba Carriera

Born in Venice, Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) was the daughter of a clerk and a lace-maker. Largely self-taught, she began her artistic career painting miniature portraits. Carriera employed ivory as the ground for her miniatures instead of the typical material for her time, vellum. Such works quickly solidified her reputation within Italian art circles and gained her acceptance into Rome’s prestigious Accademia di San Luca in 1704.

By her early twenties, Carriera was using pastel—the medium for which she later became famous. Previously the powdered pigment bound into sticks was used mostly for informal drawings and preparatory sketches. Carriera revolutionized its use for serious portraiture. Her works were admired for their velvety color palettes and striking details.

She received commissions from the courts of Modena, Vienna, and Dresden. In 1720, Carriera spent a successful year in Paris, where she visited renowned art collections, met French artists, and created portraits of prominent individuals, including the young Louis XV.

She later worked in Modena and Austria, assisted by her sister Giovanna. In Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI became her patron and the empress became her pupil. Her greatest patron, Augustus III of Poland, sat for her in 1713 and amassed more than 150 of her pastels.

Carriera primarily used pastel for portraits and allegorical images. In the 18th century, artists often personified the continents by using female figures in distinctive clothing. At the time, Europe recognized four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. Carriera’s allegorical work in NMWA’s collection, America, represents the region as a woman in costume. The realistic flesh tones of the figure exemplify Carriera’s skill with pastel. She included a jeweled headband, feather hair accessory, and a quiver of arrows to allude to Europeans’ common associations with America. Her ability to capture the textures of rich fabrics and accessories was appealing to her wealthy patrons.

Carriera suffered emotional trauma following her sister Giovanna’s death in 1738 and the loss of her own eyesight, which began eight years later. By 1749 she was permanently blind and unable to work. However, Carriera enjoyed such extensive fame that for subsequent women artists, to be called a “modern Rosalba” was high praise. Renowned French portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842) earned the moniker decades after Carriera’s death, as Carriera’s oeuvre continued to influence artists such as Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.