Adelaide Labille-Guiard: Self Portrait with Two Pupils 1785 + detail

Adelaide’s Atelier.

In her amazing and monumental Self Portrait with Two Pupils (approximately life-size, shown above), Adelaide Labille-Guiard (later Vincent after she married the son of her teacher), truly excels both in originality and expressive power. 18th Century France was unbalanced, swinging between the excess and frivolity of the absolutist monarchy and Enlightenment values of equality and brotherhood (or in this case, sisterhood). Here Labille-Guiard walks a middle way between Rococo and gravitas, working in an old fashioned Baroque style, with deep background shadow and strong foreground lighting and a powerful triangular composition. The edge of the canvas on her easel forms a daring diagonal across the left. In many ways traditional (with the presence of a bust of her father looking over her and a statuette of the vestal virgin, both attesting to her virtue), the artist is seated and gloriously attired in conventional ladylike fashion (her father was a haberdasher which may account for the attention paid to the fabric of her sumptuous dress!)
What’s unusual though, is the presence of her pupils who stand above her, as though superior in importance.The norm in womens’ self portraiture is a solo figure (apart from the occasional governess or attendant). Some think it attests to the fact that Labille-Guiard, as a keen teacher, wanted to promote women in the arts and particularly into the Academie Royale – a very patriarchal institution which would only admit 4 women at any one time. The artist hoped things would improve when the Republic came into being – but alas! it got worse. All women were banned in 1793. Even if this wasn’t the intention, their presence above her certainly expresses the importance she attached to the education of women artists.
Observe the closeness of the three women. Marie-Gabrielle Capet (on the right) gazes adoringly at her teacher’s work (Capet was a close friend as well as student), while the other pupil gazes out at the viewer in the same direction as her teacher (some think they are staring into a mirror outside the picture space). Her look is a mysterious one – intimate (a favourite Rococo trait), but wary and quizzical at the same time.