Women Painting Themselves: pt 8

Gah, you know you’ve left a series go unattended for too long when you have to look up what part you’re on. Anyways, in this part we’re going to look at two artists who were close contemporaries—they were acquaintances if not necessarily friends—working in France during the later part of the 18th century.


Louise Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun 1755-1842

Louise Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun* was a (yet another) highly successful painter trained by her father. By her mid-teens she was the breadwinner for her siblings and widowed mother. She was a favorite of Marie Antoinette, and the queen appointed her to the French Academy in 1783. As shouldn’t be at all surprising if you know anything at all about the end of the 18th century, because of this royal favor during the French Revolution Vigée-LeBrun was forced to flee France with her daughter and live in various other cities for several years. This didn’t seem to do anything to damage her career though, and eventually she was able to return to France after things were relatively settled.

Vigée-LeBrun’s art may come across as frivolous**, and part of that is she was painting in the Rococo style/period, which is never going to win any awards for its restraint and sobriety. However, keep in mind that in order to have a successful career before, during, and after the French Revolution she had to have been pretty quick on her feet and incredibly focused on her job.

The main thing that strikes me when looking at Vigée-LeBrun’s portrait (especially in comparison to Labille-Guiard’s, which will follow) is that she has an air of being very relaxed. Yes, she has her artist props, and yeah she’s posed in a nice dress like these Peaches Boutique purple prom dresses, but the setting is outdoors (I can promise that it was not painted outdoors) and the pose is designed to be more ‘natural’, more casual. I would describe the overall effect as smugly confident: she’s got it and she knows it and you should know it too. She doesn’t have to beat you over the head with the point.


Adélaïde Labille-Guiard 1749-1803

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard suffers from being perpetually compared to Vigee-Le Brun. FUN FACT: they were appointed to the Academy on the same day, as two of the four female artists allowed in at a time.*** Less is known about Labille-Guidard’s early years than Vigee-LeBrun’s, but by age 20 was she was considered a professional painter as according to her marriage contract. For whatever reason, while she did quite well for herself Labille-Guiard never had quite as glittering a career as Vigee-LeBrun. It probably didn’t help that A) her politics were significantly more liberal (she painted Robespierre’s portrait as well as members of the General Assembly), B) She stayed in France through the revolution C) she died much earlier so had less time to make her mark on history. Also, I think it’s interesting that there was this supposed to be this great rivalry between the pair that seems to have only existed in gossip. It’s like people thought that hey, here’re two lady painter who’re doing pretty well for themselves, obviously they must hate each other. This would never happen today.

So as far as this painting goes, if ever there was a portrait that screamed “look at me I am awesome!” this is it. Seriously, this painting has it all: she’s in her studio, in an incredibly fancy outfit for an inherently messy activity,**** and with two adoring students hovering behind her. Note that the students are female—people have generally interpreted this as Adélaïde making a point that more women should be trained as artists, which seems like a reasonable thing to assume she’d think.

*Aka Marie Élisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. She has a lot of names and a couple of variations on how they’re spelled/punctuated. As near as I can tell she dropped Marie after she got married, but I have no idea why the order of her given names changes.

**Jacques Louis David Is an artist during this time period who was all about the serious business of making Art for the Ages, I’m sure the money was just a nice bonus. Notable as being the one artist from this time period whose work most people have probably seen referenced, even if they don’t know it.

***This is actually pretty good for the time. After Napoleon got done shaking things up, the number of women allowed in the post-Revolution equivalent of the Academy was zero.

****Personal opinion time! Yes, you can still buy palettes in the style seen in both these portraits, but I have no idea why you’d want to. Glass is so much nicer than wood to use as a surface, and while I suppose in theory there might be situations where holding your palette would be more convenient, in practice if I tried that I’d be covered in expensive paint in under 30 minutes. Tables were invented for a reason.

http://www.siefar.org/dictionnaire/en/Adélaïde_Labille -notable for the comprehensive list of works by the artist. However the English version of the site isn’t very well translated.
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5 The Met’s take on Adélaïde Labille–Guiard’s portrait.
http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=3586 Adélaïde Labille–Guiard’s bio
http://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/adélaïde-labille-guiard No one can talk about Labille–Guiard without mentioning Vigée-LeBrun
http://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/élisabeth-louise-vigée-lebrun Louise Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun’s bio
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sara/hd_sara.htm General info about the French Academy and Salon
http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi38.htm Because it’s interesting and I went down a bit of a rabbit hole to figure out when it would’ve been easy for artists to start using glass for palettes.

Previous parts in this series:
part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6
part 7

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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