Neoclassical art through Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Adélaide Labille-Guiard

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Adélaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) and Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) were undoubtedly two of the best painters of their time. Little did they have to envy Jacques-Louis David, the neoclassical painter par excellence, a militant of the French Revolution and later a portraitist of Napoleon.

Although their trajectories were different, both entered the French Academy in the same year, 1783. Since at that time only four female academics were allowed simultaneously, they filled the quota, because Marie-Thérèse Réboul and Anne Vallayer-Coster were already part of it. of the institution from 1757 and 1770 respectively.

Painters with training and career

Portrait of François André Vincent, by Adélaide Labille-Guiard.
Louvre Museum / Wikimedia Commons

Labille-Guiard lived near the Palais Royale. It was a good neighborhood, full of boutiques and artists’ workshops, where his father ran a fabric store. He apprenticed with the Swiss miniaturist François-Élie Vincent and later with the great pastel master, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour.

The first’s son, François-André Vincent, introduced her to the oil technique. They were great friends all her life and ended up getting married in 1800, Vincent being the second husband of the painter.

Vigée-Lebrun was the daughter of the painter Louis Vigée and in her childhood she came into contact with her father’s pastel bars, color mixtures and the study of the old masters, always encouraged by him to draw and paint. As she herself explains in her fabulous memoirs, she was from a young age next to artists and writers at the evenings offered by the Vigée at home. But at the age of 14 she lost her father and started working to support her mother and her brother. At 15, she was earning enough to do it.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette made by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.
Hessian House Foundation / Wikimedia Commons

Labille-Guiard opened a workshop and had many female students, whom he took as models several times. She learned in the studios of other painters and began to show his works in public. Although she was denied her studio in the palace, as other artists were, she was granted an annual pension and she was named the painter of the Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoria, daughters of Louis XV and aunts of Louis XVI. . This was the high point of her career, both in terms of fame and in terms of technique and aesthetics.

Vigée-Lebrun had more clients and commissions from the Parisian aristocracy, especially portraits. Minister Angevilliers presented it to the monarchs. Thus, she painted the entire royal family and became the official portraitist of Queen Marie Antoinette.

the french revolution

Politically, Labille-Guiard and Vigée-Lebrun had their differences. The first supported the Revolution (although in a moderate reformist group) and stayed in France while it lasted. The second was a monarchist and she fled the country with her daughter in 1789, only to return 12 years later.

While Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun traveled through different European cities where she continued to paint at the cream of the cream (Naples, Rome, Vienna, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin…), Adélaide Labille-Guiard witnessed the arrest of several artists and the murder of some of them (the painter Ann-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul, for example, was guillotined for painting portraits of the royal family).

Despite Adélaide’s relationship with the monarchs, she was able to save her life, although her career was devastated.

women in painting

It should be noted that Adélaide Labille-Guiard played an important role in defending the woman painter. In a famous speech delivered on September 23, 1790, she proposed that they be admitted in unlimited numbers to the Academy and that they could form part of the government of the institution, seeking the equality that had been denied them until now.

Portrait of Louise Elizabeth of France with her son, by Adélaide Labille-Guiard.
Palace of Versailles / Wikimedia Commons

Curiously, Jacques-Louis David, who had had women painters as apprentices in his studio, considered that women should stay at home taking care of their husband and children, where they were necessary for society, painting being incompatible with the modest life they should have. bring. Thus, David once again relegated them to the private sphere, minimizing the role of the great artists in the history of art. In the end, with the rise of the Jacobins to power, the Academy was replaced by the Community in 1793, closing its doors to women.

After the French Revolution, things slowly got back on track. Adélaide Labille-Guiard continued to present her works at the Paris Salons until 1800, the year in which she participated for the last time with a family portrait, a large-format painting that has since disappeared.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun returned to Paris, after her long exile, in 1802. The very night of her arrival, a concert was given in her honor and she was invited by the Comédie Française to its performances. She exhibited at the Salon of 1802 but, although her reviews were favorable and she had an intense social life, she decided to go to London in 1803, intending to stay for a few months. Finally, it turned out to be two years.

There he met the painter Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy, visited his studio several times and both declared mutual admiration. He returned to France in 1805 when Napoleon had consolidated his empire.

Maria Cristina Teresa of Bourbonby Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.
Prado Museum

The paintings of both painters reflect a careful and painstaking technique, with an enviable treatment of textures, clothing and brightness. The richness of details, color and realism places them in the forefront of neoclassicism.

They are two good examples of how women also managed to reach the top, how they had recognition in life and a large clientele, despite the society that tried to exclude them, and the difficulty they had to make their way in a masculine world, challenging established conventions and positioning itself in exhibitions, museums, awards and the art market.

Therefore, it is fair to give them the place they deserve in the history of art.

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