Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was the youngest of eight children. She was born in 1749 in Paris to a bourgeois haberdasher. As an adolescent she had a knack for art and studied art from a family friend, the miniaturist painter François-Elie Vincent. She also met and married a financial clerk named Louis-Nicolas Guiard in 1769. Her marriage to him proved unhappy, and the couple officially separated in 1779.
Known as Labille-Guiard or Labille-Guiard des Vertus by this time, her marriage difficulties and separation created virulent rumors. The rumors supposedly emanated from duc de Marlborough who not only examined Labille-Guiard’s sexual ethics but also questioned her artistic abilities in “the anonymous Suite de marlborough au Salon 1783 [that] alluded crassly to a rumor that Labille-Guiard was having an affair with … [François-André] Vincent.” It also resulted in pun that claimed she had 2,000 lovers because that equated to vingt cents (20 hundreds), which also sounded like “Vincent.”
Vincent and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard married on 8 June 1799, and after her marriage, she began to sign her paintings “Madame Vincent.” Her husband was the son of Labille-Guiard’s former art teacher. The younger Vincent was also a painter similar to his father, but he had been inspired by classical antiquity and Italian renaissance painters, such as Raphael. Moreover, the younger Vincent became a leader of the neoclassical movement in French art, and, because of his superb skills, he was eventually appointed master of drawings to Louis XVI of France.
Because of Vincent’s excellent painting skills, he helped Labille-Guiard migrate from miniatures to full-scale paintings, and, well before her divorce from Louis-Nicolas Guiard in 1799, rumors abound that Vincent was not only bedding her but also “touching up” her artworks. Part of the reason for the nasty rumors was based on Labille-Guiard being a female artist, which caused jealousy among male artists because it threatened their livelihoods.
Much has also been written about Labille-Guiard’s supposed great rivalry with her contemporary Madame Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun. Some people claim that the women’s rivalry stemmed from a rivalry that already existed between Marie Antoinette and Louis XV’s daughters — Adélaïde, Victorie, Sophie, and Louise — known collectively as the Mesdames. Apparently, Vigée-Lebrun worked for Marie Antoinette and Labille-Guiard worked for the Mesdames. In addition, both artists were accepted into the Académie on the same day in May of 1783, but because royal aid was used to help Labille-Guiard get elected, many Academicians were unhappy, and it reputedly provoked the women’s rivalry further. However, no such rivalry appears to have existed between the two women, and, in fact, it seems the rivalry rumors were just another attempt by the women’s male counterparts to discredit them.
Unlike Lebrun, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard became interested in educating women artists, and, after 1780, she accepted young women into her studio to train them and became the first woman artist permitted to set up a studio for herself and for her students at the Louvre. She was so passionate about teaching her Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Mlle. Marie-Gabrielle Capet and Mlle. Garreaux de Rosemond [shown above], includes two of her most capable students. It was exhibited at the Salon of 1785 and the French writer Louis Petit de Bachaumont declared of it:
“Unity of action … harmonious coloring, all that one can wish for is found in this clever composition worthy of the most skillful masters. The other portraits by this academician present a stern brush, more proper at rendering deeply involved thinkers than the frivolous likes of society people.”
Labille-Guiard’s artistic talents were described as crisp with sharp edges, and it was her style that helped her become a popular painter with French nobility and royalty. Some of her artworks included duc d’Oléans’ love interest, the writer and tutor madame de Genlis. There was the comedian Tournelle and the painter Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo. In 1786, Labille-Guiard painted the man who was instrumental in bringing Marie-Antoinette to France, Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul. She also became designated as the “premier peintre” to the Mesdames, whom she painted in the late 1780s. In addition, Labille-Guiard was commissioned by Louis XVI’s younger brother, duc de Provenance, to complete a large portrait of him.
When the French Revolution broke out, despite the awkwardness of her popularity with nobility and royalty, Labille-Guiard gained popularity with the new régime. However, this popularity did not occur until she destroyed some her artworks to show the new régime her loyalty. Among the artworks she reluctantly destroyed was the large painting commissioned by duc de Provenance that she had worked on for two and a half years but had not quite finished.
After the destruction of her paintings, she received many new commissions, but she never regained the profitability she had enjoyed in former times. Some of her new commissions included portraits by Napoleon’s chief diplomat, the well-known Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (Talleyrand), the French General Vicomte de Beauharnais, and one of the most influential figures during the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre.
Vincent, Labille-Guiard, and her student Capet developed a close relationship, and, during, the Reign of Terror, they moved from Paris to the countryside. One twenty-first century historian commented on their relationship:
“The three artists could be seen about town together, as noted by the British landscape painter Joseph Farrington. In a travel diary, Farrington sketched the seating arrangements of a dinner given by the American artist Benjamin West in Paris on September 27, 1802. Vigée-Lebrun enjoyed a seat of honor next to the host. And just a few seats away were Vincent, Labille-Guiard, and Capet, described by Farrington as ‘companion of Madame Vincent.'”
In the 1800s, Labille-Guiard’s skills were noted by one popular magazine:
“Mme. Le Brun and Mme. Guiard, deserve to stand in the first rank with their brothers of the crayon. … [Labille-Guiard] possessed remarkable talent, and although she did not attain the celebrity of Mme. Le Burn, her paintings have a power and charm which prove her the peer of her famous rival.”
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard began suffering from an illness in her later years and died at the age of 53 on 24 April 1803, the same year that Joseph Chinard makes a bust of Madame Récamier. With Labille-Guiard’s death she was soon forgotten partly because Lebrun usually received more favorable reviews. However, a biography of her by Laura Auricchio helped to repopularize her:
“When Labille-Guiard died in 1803, her circumstances testified to a lifetime of hard-won achievements. Signaling the respect she still enjoyed in the Paris art world, her former sitter Joachim Lebreton, now secrétaire perpetuel de la classe dex Beaux-Arts de l’Institut, delivered her eulogy. On a more personal level, her close-knit household remained intact. Labille-Guiard, Capet, and Vincent were still living together in 1803, and Capet stayed on with Vincent after Labille-Guiard’s death. In fact, Vincent would later name Capet his primary beneficiary, and, in turn Capet’s testament stipulated her wish to be buried near ‘the tomb of my father Vincent at père La Chaise.’
Capet left one final legacy of her teacher’s life: the large-scale painting Studio Scene: A L-Guiard Painting of the Portrait of Joseph-Marie Vien … which encapsulates some of the irreconcilable conflicts that had structured Labille-Guiard’s art and career. … Capet’s painting offers two competing vision of female artists. Labille-Guiard, seen in profile, appears to be serious, professional, and it must be said, quite plain. The visitors gathered in her studio testify to her wide renown, and the identity of the sitter … Capet plays the role of hostess, welcoming the observer to the studio. Social grace and fashionable self-preservation seem to be her domains. Although she serves as an assistant, she is not dressed for labor and has tossed a cloth over her lap to protect her clothing from splattered paint. Capet’s picture divides and controls two antithetical identities, assigning fashionable femininity to one woman and ambitious, professional labor to the other. By maintaining this crucial separation, neither is tainted.”
-  Auricchio, Laura, “Self-Promotion in Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s 1785 Self-Portrait with Two Students,” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 89, No. 1, March 2007, p. 47.
-  Montfort, Catherine R. “Self-Portraits, Portraits of Self: Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Women Artists of the Eighteenth Century, in Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2005), p. 9.
-  Auricchio, Laura, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution, 2009, p. 107.
-  The Century, Volume 43, 1892, p. 273
-  Auricchio, Laura, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution, p. 108.