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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #37: Rivals: Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard

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There’s an old quote that I’m sure you’ve heard referenced in a million sitcoms or Looney Tunes cartoons- though it actually stems from a 1932 western-- where one character, all flinty-eyed, turns to another, and declares, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” It’s an order meant to scare someone away, but it’s also a declaration of the feelings of rivalry, of jealousy, as if it shouldn’t be allowed that two people of similar stature could be functioning-- or even flourishing-- in the same place and time. After all, you couldn’t possibly have two star quarterbacks on the team, or two top valedictorians. Someone always has to be the best, or even more importantly, to be seen by the public as the best.  

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we are continuing our series on great rivalries in art history with two artists who weren’t actually rivals at all, but whose unique positions in the art world made others believe that they were. This is the story of the non-rivalry between perennial ArtCurious favorite Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

I frequently return to the period of and around the French Revolution as a subject for this podcast because it is such a fascinating time: a whirlwind of change and shock waves that reverberated throughout the world, changing it and driving further change to come. The art made during that time is also a personal favorite, and I get swept away in the drama of it all: the fervent emotion, the fluttering of neoclassical gowns, the solemn oaths, the violence. But I also come back again and again to this time period because of a few artists who rose above and beyond others, and who really should not have been able to reach the heights that they did, simply because they were women. Women artists have traditionally been undervalued. And as we mentioned in our earlier episode this season on Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the art world is essentially a man’s world. So when women rise to the forefront, it’s somewhat surprising-- shocking even. And the careers of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard are surprisingly impressive indeed.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s path to success was nothing short of extraordinary because it was so unlikely. Let’s start with her upbringing. Most professional women painters who were born into families of artists or artisans-- the primary way for women to receive an authentic artistic creer-- but not Labille-Guiard, who was born to a Parisian shopkeeper, and was not afforded the luxury of having these automatic connections to the art world. But Labille-Guiard was shrewd and smart, so she did what lots of us do, even today, when we are trying to snag our perfect job: she began networking. By soliciting ideas and opinions from friends and neighbors, she started small by getting involved in the quote-unquote “feminine” genres of miniatures and pastel painting, before joining another childhood friend, François-André Vincent, in his studio, where she was formally trained as an oil painter.  In 1780, at the age of twenty-five, Labille-Guiard exhibited her work for the first time at the Academy of Saint-Luc, the esteemed painters’ guild of Paris that had been a bastion of artistic pride since the 14th century. After that point, things really started picking up for her-- she went on to exhibit her works at a few different locations, including a number of high-profile Parisian salons, and she worked feverishly to surrounded herself with plenty of well-established academics and artists. And luckily, her hard work and tenacity really paid off, because finally, in 1783, she became one of only four women to be accepted to the Académie Royale, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. She became hugely involved in the Academy and exhibited every other year in the Academy’s Salon-- the biggest art event of the year in Paris, and indeed all of Europe at that time-- and continued to do so until the Academy itself was disbanded in 1791 in the wake of the French Revolution. She was an integral part of the artistic landscape at the time, and her presence, like that of all women artists, was rare and extraordinary.

The same year that she was admitted to the Royal Academy, Labille-Guiard opened her very own studio on the rue Richelieu, where she painted portraits and taught painting classes to nine students. To hold down her own active studio is impressive in and of itself, but what’s even more interesting is that her nine students were all women. And it’s this incredible facet-- her commitment to teaching other women artists--  that she chose to document in what is arguably her most famous and most important painting. Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, painted in 1785, is an astounding full length, life-sized work depicts the artist sitting at an easel with two young women students standing behind her, not only watching, but also learning from her. What’s equally cool about this work of art is that it acts as a historical document, because we know the identities of the two students who are learning from their master--or is it mistress? Their names are Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond and both were among Labille-Guiard’s most promising students. Rosemond died in 1788, but Capet had a longer life and a successful career as a neoclassical portraitist and miniaturist.

Labille-Guiard’s triple portrait here is beautifully rich in detail, and it’s so easy to get lost in the little elements, such as the intricate folds of the artist’s periwinkle dress, her student’s demure yet excited expressions, and the tender care with which they embrace each other while their instructor looks out at us with confidence and pride. When Labille-Guiard presented this work at the Salon of 1785, the same year it was painted, a critic declared that it was her most beautiful work, and one of the most exquisite paintings exhibited at the Salon that year. But it wasn’t simply a lovely work-- it was also a rather meaningful one. By portraying herself in the mode of teacher, and teaching only female students, Labille-Guiard intended to make a point about the necessity of women’s presence in the French Academy as both mentors and pupils. As such, it’s a gorgeous piece of propaganda, and one that cut close to home for the artist herself. In 1783 when she was admitted to the Royal Academy, there was a limit to the number of women even accepted to the academy. This painting was Labille-Guiard’s delicate way of pushing for more presence, more acceptance, and more equality in the arts.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s status rose to its highest height in 1787, when she was named First Painter of Louis XVI’s aunts, the Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire -- a huge honor, to be sure, and one that affirmed her legitimacy as a professional painter. For two years, she benefited generously from her highly sought-after position in the circles of the monarchy, achieving the level of status that not even many of her male colleagues had been able to claim. She painted not only the king’s aunts, but also completed commissions for his sister and his brother, among other courtly clientele. Thus, she had access to the good life. However, things changed rather drastically once the French Revolution commenced in 1789. Her clients--not only the King’s family members, but also aristocratic and royalist sympathizers-- dwindled as potential portrait sitters escaped France or were dispatched to the great beyond via the guillotine. Although she did manage to find some new clients who needed their visages commemorated, such as Revolutionary leader Maximilen de Robespierre, the demand for portraiture after the Revolution was nowhere near what it once was.

Nevertheless, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard did not stop working-- even if those jobs were fewer and far between--and even more fascinatingly, she didn’t stop fighting for her own passion projects, even amidst the drama and bloodshed of the French Revolution. In 1790, she proposed that women be accepted to the Royal Academy as “consilliers,” or art advisers-- an idea that was positively received but never enacted. As the Revolution dragged on, though, she suffered further major career blows. First, she began to be criticized and shamed-- by other artists, including Jacques-Louis David himself-- for that access to the monarchy and the lavish lifestyle that it afforded her. In the midst of the Reign of Terror in 1793, the was given an executive order to turn over one of her paintings-- a huge group portrait of the monarchy commissioned by the king’s brother-- and it was publicly incinerated in the name of revolution and progress. It was a loss from which she never recovered, and she left Paris to sit out the remaining days of the Revolution with a handful of students whom she convinced to escape alongside with her, including Mademoiselle Capet. In 1800, she married Vincent, her former mentor, after which she began signing her paintings with the caption “Madame Vincent.” She died in 1803 after a long illness at the age of fifty-four.  

The French Revolution and its aftereffects weren’t the only things that were damaging in the life and career of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. The specter of a rival-- an enemy, a competitor-- hung over her in the public eye. But was this a real rivalry? And how did these two artists interact and intersect? That’s coming up next, right after this break.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

Adélaïde Labille Guiard moved through her career with grace and ease, up until the Revolution brought things to a significant slowdown. But much of that slowdown can be reasoned by the fact that she never left her home country while it roiled through change and violence. Personally I wonder how much her career would have continued-- or even grown-- had she have left France and traveled among Europe. Because this is exactly what another impressive female artist did during the same time period, and history seems to have better remembered her name. This is Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the painter we’ve referenced a number of times in the course of this podcast, and whose life we discussed in our third episode, “The Semi-Charmed Life of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.” Go back and listen to that episode to get the nitty-gritty on Vigée Le Brun’s life and times in full (including more detailed descriptions and analyses of some of her more famous works of art). But as a quick refresher, here are the big bullet points of Vigée Le Brun’s biography.     

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun had access to the art world basically from birth, given she was the daughter of a painter and was encouraged from an early age to pursue art. She took drawing lessons with her dad as a child, and would paint on any surface she could find, including walls and her own school books. Her formal training began as a teenager, and at age nineteen, she was admitted to the Academy of Saint-Luc, where she exhibited her work professionally for the first time. Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, who wasn’t the best husband in the world but was a connected art dealer who exposed her to a new and exciting world of artists, connoisseurs, and collectors. This proved to be a significant foot-in-the-door for Vigée Le Brun, and she used her charm and social connections to propel herself forward and upward. And upwards she went-- and fast. In 1778, she received one of the cushiest and highest-profile jobs possible when she was appointed the official painter of Queen Marie Antoinette, and the two became very close friends. In 1783, on the basis of her works but also with the heavy lobbying of the Queen herself, Vigée Le Brun was admitted to the Royal Academy-- one of the three other women, besides Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, to be allowed in that very year. But unlike Labille-Guiard, whose career suffered during and after the Revolution, Vigée Le Brun’s continued to flourish. Part of this, though, was because she chose to flee Paris in the wake of the Revolution, as she feared for her life since she was so closely connected to the unpopular (and soon to be beheaded) Queen. Thanks once more to her charms, social skills, and her evident talent,  she managed to build a clientele of aristocrats all throughout Europe, painting portraits from Rome and Milan to Vienna and St. Petersburg. When she returned to Paris in 1802, she reconnected with many of her contacts before the Revolution, found clients old and new, and continued to paint for the remainder of her life, and in 1842, she died at the ripe old age of 86.

When Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard were both accepted to the Royal Academy at the same time, they were immediately pinpointed as the stronger of the bunch of women allowed in by official decree. And because they were promptly ID’d as the quote-unquote “really good ones,” they were looped together, grouped in the public imagination, for better or worse. They traveled many of the same artistic circles, and besides the Royal Academy connection, they both were part of the Academie of Saint-Luc as well. And certainly, for the early part of their careers, the similarities in their clientele didn’t help to differentiate them. Both were closely tied to the Monarchy and held super high-profile positions as portraitists to women directly related to the King. And, of yeah, they were both women. So, they must be really alike, right?

From the outside looking in, there was a strong sense of a rivalry between these two artists that proved to be a prominent aspect of the way they, and their work, was received by Parisian society. It was played up, dissected by other artists and their compatriots. But were Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard really rivals? Was their client base, pre-Revolution, chock-full of rich people clamoring for immortalization, so no one was hurting for money or opportunity, or were these women fighting over the same commissions and cash? Was Paris, and Versailles, truly big enough for the both of them?

I’ll cut to the chase really quickly here. Were Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard actually fervent enemies and artistic rivals? No. No way. But they were declared to be so. Pitted together, these women, their work, and their personal lives were highly scrutinized, their talent was questioned, and they were ultimately made out to be enemies by the court of public opinion. Vigée Le Brun was seen as more successful in the post-revolutionary years, while Adélaïde Labille-Guiard struggled a bit further. Their career differences, though, were no more a reflection on their relationship to one another than anything else. But rivals they were made out to be.

The big question is: why? Okay-- fair warning here, but I’m about to jump into feminist theory here. By no means is this man-bashing, but it has to be taken into consideration that a sexist agenda was put upon these two women. In her article, “Self-Portraits, Portraits of Self: Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Women Artists of the Eighteenth Century,” author Catherine R. Montfort brings up a very important point, which we’ve already touched on earlier in this episode, and that’s the fact that these women earned hugely important positions as court painters-- which meant that they male counterparts didn’t get those same positions. And that also meant that there was a fair amount of jealousy and even anger over their success, which some men felt was unwarranted. A woman shouldn’t have that important commission, you can imagine some saying. I should be the official portraitist to the Queen-slash-king’s aunt-slash-king’s brother-slash fill-in-the-blank.

With this jealousy and bitterness came the inevitable backlash towards these women artists. As Montfort notes, sexism manifested itself in three distinguishable ways: attacks on their moral and ethical character, the questioning of their talent, and ambiguously-phrased compliments that were actually more insulting than anything.  To address the first point: rumors and vicious gossip swirled around them, particularly in Paris art circles. Vigée Le Brun was accused of having multiple affairs with her clients, and was even suspected of being in a scandalous lesbian relationship with Queen Marie Antoinette herself-- though that rumor was meant to put the queen in a bad light as much, or more so, than the artist herself. For her part, Labille-Guiard was accused of having an affair with her former mentor François-André Vincent. Now, this one is trickier, because that rumor may or may not have been true, considering the fact that Labille-Guiard did eventually go on to marry Vincent. At the time, though, Labille-Guiard was already married to her first husband, and that union was like that of Vigée Le Brun’s: it was… meh. A starter marriage. And when divorce was finally granted for women in France in the last years of the eighteenth century, she did move quickly onward to Vincent. Regardless of whether or not she had an affair with him prior to their marriage, the fact still stands that she was bombarded for something that had nothing at all to do with her career. Both artists had to deal with these personal accusations as a consequence of their professional success.

Not that they weren’t attacked from the professional angle, too, which brings us to the second manifestation of rampant sexism directed at these two artists. You may recall from our earlier episode this season on Judith Leyster that that artist’s work was so consistently good that all the way up into the end of the 19th century, scholars and historians were mistaking Leyster’s works as being completed by men like Jan Miense Molenaer and Frans Hals, her own rival. The same thing happened, both in their lifetimes and far after, with both Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun. Both women were accused of having male artists either help them complete their work, or having these men create their paintings whole-hog. For Labille-Guiard, her implied helper was Vincent, naturally, and Vigée Le Brun’s was a slough of various men, including a man by the name of  Ménageot-- although it’s interesting here to note that Jacques-Louis David seems to have stepped up to the plate for Vigée in this manner, sniffing, quote, “It is quite extraordinary that Ménageot paints so well when he works for Madame Le Brun and makes his own works so badly.” To be fair, historian Dorothy Johnson writes that Ménageot was one of David’s own bitter rivals, so this point is truly directed more at bringing Ménageot down than buttressing Vigée Le Brun, but hey, at least he stood up for her. The bottom line, though, was this: as women, they couldn’t possibly be talented enough to create their works on their own.

Lastly, there was the third point of very grudging contention. In the rare moments where the paintings of Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were noted as being good works, any praise that was directed at them was given a spin that seemed contingent upon their womanhood. Wow, their colleagues would note, she paints women so well because she’s a woman! Or, look, see how well she’s managed that still life of flowers in the corner of that picture. Obviously women know how to paint flowers since flowers are a girl thing. When Vigée Le Brun, for example, created her entry piece for the Royal Academy, an ambitious work called Peace Bringing Back Abundance, she aimed to paint a scene in the manner of history painting, that highest and most esteemed level of artistic creation that presented grand historical or mythological subject matter. And by most accounts, the work was good-- really good-- and her male counterparts were shocked that she was able to formulate a painting in that way. Their praise was grudging and boiled down to exclamations of how incredible it was that a woman could paint such a scene. It was the eighteenth-century artistic equivalent of saying, “Hey, you run well for a girl.”

All in all, these sexist claims were used against the two artists to undermine or discredit their successful careers, and it was these claims that undergirded the false rivalry between them. Let’s put it this way: you can work to bring someone down from their pedestal on your own, or you can pit that person against a so-called “enemy” and have that rivalry do a lot of the hard work for you. So fellow artists (men, to be sure) found various methods to defame Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun, and devising a rivalry was yet another way to do this and to distract audiences from their natural talent.  Pitting them against each other via rude gossip and slanderous pamphlets drew more attention to rumor than fact-- which meant that all of Paris was more interested in hearing the latest salacious news and less in studying the intricacies of a portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, for example. After all, it’s far more entertaining to read a tabloid about a beleaguered actor than to see their latest indie film.

Despite their successful careers, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun were forced to face difficulties that were inherently rooted in sexism. Women artists were certainly anomalies in French society, and when they did emerge, their talent and validity as artists were constantly called into question, as we have seen today. Rather than celebrate Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun as individual portraitists with remarkable talent, critics and other artists not only compared them to each other, but used these comparisons to divide them, and with hopes of bringing them down. Fortunately, modern-day historians and scholars have discovered the truth behind their quote-unquote “rivalry,” and with this truth, we are now able to appreciate them individually as pioneering artists with a long range of influence.

Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, it’s the tale of two best friends who are there for each other through thick and thin, through strife and scandal-- until one of them gives the other a gift that can’t be overlooked. That’s coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.  

Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research assistance by Adria Gunter. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our amazing new  logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at K-A-B-double O-N-K-I dot com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is an interdisciplinary creative space, founded to foster artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition spaces, Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit Anchorlight Raleigh Dot Com. Thank you so much to the generous folks  at Anchorlight for funding this third season.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. This means that you can donate to the show and it is fully tax-deductible! Follow the “Donate” links at our website for more details.  

As always, you can also go to our website for images, information and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. And you can contact us via the website, email us at artcuriouspodcast@gmail.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. --and remember to subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell anyone you want about the show. Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in rivalries of  art history.

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