In 1785 the French artist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) electrified the art world with her Self-Portrait with Two Pupils.1 An immense (210.8 x 151.1 cm) depiction of the artist seated at her easel, palette in hand, this was a bold and complex assertion of talent. Shown to the public at the Salon du Louvre, it firmly situated its author amongst the ranks of France’s most important artists, for only members of the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture could participate in this exhibition.2 With its implicit emphasis on the central subject’s feminine identity – Labille-Guiard’s stylish, elaborate outfit seemed to derive straight from contemporary French fashion plates – the painting offered a pointed rebuke to the Salon critics who, two years prior, had crudely suggested that a ‘mere’ woman artist could only paint so successfully by trading sexual favours for assistance. And finally, by presenting two young students standing behind her, the Self-Portrait consolidated Labille-Guiard’s reputation as a teacher, specifically of women artists, whose rights she championed steadfastly.
The painting brought tangible professional rewards to the up-and-coming Labille-Guiard. The powerful comte d’Angiviller, superintendent of the royal manufactories, wrote to the King that Self-Portrait with Two Pupils was ‘worthy of the greatest masterpieces of the French school’ and argued to secure a lifetime pension for its author. It also paved the way for a flood of royal portrait commissions: Madame Adélaïde, the King’s maiden aunt, was reportedly so impressed by this work that she sought to buy it for the princely sum of 10,000 livres. She then commissioned the artist to make full-length portraits of herself and of her sister, Madame Victoire, and her niece, Madame Élisabeth.
The subsequent history of Self-Portrait with Two Pupils is just as colourful if somewhat less illustrious. In 1878, Labille-Guiard’s descendants offered it as a gift to the Musée du Louvre. After that institution – astonishingly – rejected it as ‘without artistic value,’ the painting found its way to America, entering the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1953. This stance on the part of France’s national museum speaks to the obscurity into which Labille-Guiard had fallen by the nineteenth century. Indeed, art historian Laura Auricchio suggests that Labille-Guiard began to slip from favour at the end of her own lifetime after having allied herself, during the Revolution, with the moderate Feuillants, a reformist faction that unsuccessfully advocated for a constitutional monarchy rather than outright abolition of that institution. This attempt to steer a middle path ultimately won Labille-Guiard the contempt of royalists and revolutionaries alike.3 Even today, she remains relatively unknown, particularly in comparison with the ‘other’ major female French painter of the late eighteenth century, the royalist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, official portraitist to Marie-Antoinette.
One of the more unfortunate outcomes of the Louvre rejection is that the preceding chapter in the life of Self-Portrait with Two Pupils has become obscured. Yet it is a fact that during her lifetime, Labille-Guiard deliberately elected – apparently in the face of Madame Adélaïde’s tempting offer – to keep this painting rather than sell it. This suggests that the work carried a personal resonance. In thinking about what this emotional pull might be, it is worth remembering that this is not simply a representation of one figure. Rather the author has chosen to depict herself accompanied by two real individuals, each of whom had a defined role to play, both in this canvas and in Labille-Guiard’s life. Their presence makes the painting as much a portrait of a friendship as a showcase for artistic achievement.
The Swiss-born Marie-Marguerite Carraux de Rosemond (1765–1788), looks steadily out at the viewer. Known for her beauty – John Trumbell (1746–1843) sketched her when he visited Labille-Guiard’s studio – she was, despite the use of the aristocratic particule in her name, the illegitimate daughter of farming folk. It is not clear exactly when she moved to Paris but she was studying with Labille-Guiard by 1783, the year in which she first participated in the Exposition de la jeunesse for fledging artists, receiving encouraging praise from critics for her efforts. In the notarial documents prepared at the time of her marriage to the engraver Charles-Clément Bervic in 1788, she reports herself as living with Labille-Guiard at the latter’s residence in the rue de Richelieu. Sadly her early death in childbirth the year of her marriage cut short her career and little is known of her work today.
More can be said of the figure who is shown in profile, leaning forward excitedly. This is Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818). Born in Lyon in 1761, the daughter of a servant, she is thought to have begun studies with Labille-Guiard in Paris as early as 1778, making her one of the latter’s first pupils4. She was a well-established member of the studio by 1783 when her presence there was noted by a journalist (as one of the ‘nine muses in the cradle of which [Labille-Guiard] is the teacher’).5 Exceptionally gifted and dedicated, Capet was singled out for critical praise when she participated in the Exposition de la jeunesse. Manifestly she also won the esteem of her teacher. This is made clear in Labille-Guiard’s painting where Capet looks attentively at the work on the easel, thereby essentially serving as the stand-in for all other viewers. We cannot see it, but we imagine that Labille-Guiard is at work on a remarkable new painting because Capet clearly thinks this is the case.
As time went on, Capet became a close friend to Labille-Guiard, even approaching the status of surrogate daughter. Like Carraux de Rosemond, she lived with her teacher, and also served as her model in an intimate seated study in red, white, and black chalks, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.6 When Labille-Guiard married fellow artist François-André Vincent (1746–1816) in 1800, Capet remained an integral part of the household as witnessed by a series of lively studies by Vincent showing the younger woman in engaged various domestic activities. Although new opportunities were temporarily afforded to women artists under the Revolution, and her own career as a miniaturist blossomed, Capet put her own work on hold to care for Labille-Guiard during her final illness in 1803. Subsequently she cared for Vincent until his death in 1816. As Séverine Sofio points out, this fact is doubly important, both because of the personal devotion implied and because, of course, it meant that Capet had continued access to Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, which Vincent inherited upon his wife’s death.7
And indeed, in 1808, Capet exhibited her own professional manifesto, Portrait of the Late Madame Vincent (Studio Scene), now in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich.8 We can see in this work a response, twenty-three years later, to Labille-Guiard’s imposing canvas. For Labille-Guiard sits, once again, at her easel. This time the figure standing behind her is her husband Vincent. The studio is full of other artists, all members of the professional community that Labille-Guiard had created. Seated side by side with her teacher and friend, looking steadily out at the viewer, is Capet. She holds a loaded palette and brush for when Labille-Guiard is ready to paint.
- 1. See Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, ‘Catalogue Entry. Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788)’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, available at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436840 (last accessed on 1 June 2020).
- 2. The painting was listed in the exhibition livret under a descriptive title – ‘Un Tableau (Portrait) de trois Figures en pied, représentant une femme occupée à peindre & deux Élèves la regardant’ – that did not identify the artist as being depicted as the central figure but it is clear from contemporary published responses that the work was universally understood as a self-portrait.
- 3. Laura Auricchio, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution, Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2009, p.3.
- 4. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, François-André Vincent, 1746-1816, entre Fragonard et David, Paris: Arthena, 2013, p.112.
- 5. Journal de Paris, 3 juin 1783. Cited in Anne-Marie Passez, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1749–1803, Biographie et catalogue raisonné de son œuvre, Paris: Arts et métiers graphiques, p.21.
- 6. 2008.538.1.
- 7. Séverine Sofio, ‘Gabrielle Capet’s Collective Self-Portrait: Women and Artistic Legacy in Post-Revolutionary France’, Journal18, vol.8, Self/Portrait, Fall 2019, note 2.
- 8. Inv. FV9. This painting is extensively discussed in Sofio’s article: Ibid.