With her acceptance into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783 with three other women, including her closest female competitor, Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Adelaide Labille-Guiard could have been content that she had finally found a place in the French art world and the “old boy” network of the Paris Salon. However, Labille-Guiard, born April 11, 1749, was not satisfied. Two years later, her Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (above, from 1785) announced that she was a force to be reckoned with, regardless of gender. Surrounded by her pupils Marie Capet and Carreaux de Rosemond, Labille-Guiard not only looks the viewer confidently in the eye as she plies her painting trade, but she also shows herself dressed in the finery purchased with the wealth that her skills had earned. During her lifetime, Labille-Guiard often took second place behind Vigee-Le Brun, but today they’re seen as equals, both fighting for the same right of expression in royalist France.
Like most women artists of the eighteenth century, Labille-Guiard felt acutely the restrictions placed upon her. Denied most other artistic venues, she painted minatures, the earliest surviving example being a self-portrait, titled Self-Portrait of a Miniaturist (above, from 1775). This miniature self-portrait shows more desire than skill—the work of someone yearning to express herself but denied the proper education. Around the time of this self-portrait, Labille-Guiard became the student of Maurice Quentin de la Tour, who taught her the art of pastels, another accepted medium for women but one that de la Tour and others were raising to the level of high art. Moving on to oils, Labille-Guiard eventually became good enough to receive portrait commissions from the rich and powerful nobility of late nineteenth-century France.
The French Revolution, however, soon changed all that. Although Labille-Guiard herself sided with the revolutionaries, her royalist paintings put her in an uncomfortable position from which she could only extract herself by destroying many of her works. Portraits of revolutionary figures, such as Maximilien Robespierre (above, from 1786), literally saved her neck. Soon, Labille-Guiard took the revolutionary drive and led it in a feminist direction, demanding that women be admitted to the art academies as full students, which led some male revolutionaries to call her the “Joan of Arc” of French art—and not in a good way. Labille-Guiard even received a major commission with Jacques-Louis David to paint a public work showing Louis XVI of France handing down the Constitution to the dauphin that was never realized thanks to the Reign of Terror. Vigee-Le Brun, a staunch royalist, never campaigned for the rights of women like Labille-Guiard did, which makes Labille-Guiard the finer artist in the eyes of many modern women artists even before she put brush to canvas.