In this series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
Born in 1749, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was a supremely talented painter who forged her career at a time when the Parisian art world was dominated by aristocratic and male institutions and networks.
She was independent and resolute in the face of hostility from some of her male rivals, and successfully manoeuvred through the deadly twists of the French Revolution. Her portraits of prominent men and women in the revolutionary period of 1780-1800 are of unusual quality and breadth.
Adélaïde was one of eight children in the Labille family of haberdashers. Like many other women far distant from the pinnacle of high art, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, she made her way through artists’ studios and the Académie de Saint-Luc, a painters’ guild formed in Paris in 1391.
There she polished her craft as she moved from miniatures to full portraits and from pastels to oils. Of critical importance as a teacher was the well-connected and decorated François-Élie Vincent, as was the friendship of his artist son François-André.
In 1783, after intervention from Queen Marie-Antoinette, Adélaïde was finally admitted into the Académie Royale, at the same session as another brilliant, younger woman, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (born 1755). They were two of only a dozen women admitted since 1648. Over the next six years the two of them would become wealthy, sought-after painters of the royal family and members of its court at Versailles.
Labille-Guiard experimented with using matt backgrounds to her exquisite portraits, often eschewing the common practice of surrounding sitters with symbols of their status.
The two women were receiving fees of tens of thousands of livres for each portrait at a time when most priests, for example, were paid about one thousand annually. Vigée-Le Brun was the Queen’s favorite, painting her 30 times; instead Labille-Guiard painted King Louis XVI’s aunts, but her best portraits were of an unknown woman, her friend Vincent, and a self-portrait with her prize pupil and close friend Marie Capet.
Like so many talented women in the creative arts before and since, Labille-Guiard suffered from snide allegations that she could not be capable of such brilliance. An anonymous poem of 1783 attacked her in sexual terms:
‘François-André Vincent touches up this woman … His love makes your talent. Love dies and talent falls.’ She had supposedly had 2000 lovers: ‘vingt cents [a play on Vincent’s name], or 2,000, it’s all the same’.
The independent and strong-willed Labille-Guiard was outraged:
One must expect to have one’s talent ripped apart … it’s the fate of all those who expose themselves to public judgment, but their works, their paintings, are there to defend them, if they are good they plead their cause. But who can plead on behalf of women’s morals?
In the summer of 1789 the opulent, privileged world of Labille-Guiard – and of all those at Versailles – fell apart, as Louis XVI and his ministers mismanaged a deep financial crisis.
The commoner delegates to an advisory assembly – the Estates-General – effectively seized the political initiative in June 1789, proclaiming themselves the National Assembly, and were supported by waves of revolutionary action in Paris and the provinces. What was previously thought the most stable and confident absolutist regime in Europe was replaced by constitutional government based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Unlike the royalist Vigée-Le Brun, who fled from revolutionary France to Italy in disgust in October 1789, Labille-Guiard welcomed the Revolution and with others made substantial “patriotic donations” to support the reformist work of the Assembly.
She continued to paint vigorously, from portraits of Madame de Genlis, the governess of the children of the royal family, to the most uncompromising of the revolutionary Jacobins, such as Maximilien Robespierre, whose portrait was one of 14 politicians she painted for the Salon of 1791.
But Labille-Guiard was vulnerable. How could a court painter, the favourite of the king’s aunts, be trusted? Her rival Jean-Bernard Restout attacked her in 1791, mocking her sarcastically for doing “the arts the service of giving us the portraits of Mesdames the king’s aunts … and which would only cost the people 60 or 80 thousand francs.”
Men from the studio of the most powerful figure in the art world, the Jacobin revolutionary Jacques-Louis David, went further:
The rewards destined for artists cannot be without danger for women [since art requires] long and hard study … incompatible with the modest virtues of their sex.
The roles of “mother and wife are more precious for them and for society than their success in the arts … Strong in their virtues, justly respected, they will inspire their husbands and their children to love and serve the nation.” The reformed Academy in 1793 would exclude women altogether.
Once war with Europe broke out in April 1792, and the constitutional monarchy was overthrown by a new revolution in August, Labille-Guiard’s personal safety was at greater risk. Could her republican affirmations protect her from popular suspicion of all former courtiers? Her dreams of establishing a school for women artists were dashed and, with François-André Vincent and Marie Capet, she fled the capital for the village of Pontault, 20km to the east.
There she kept her head down during the great revolutionary crisis of “the Terror” in 1793-94, saying nothing when told her earlier portrait of Louis XVI’s brother, the émigré Comte de Provence, was to be destroyed and her fee of 30,000 livres left unpaid.
However, she used the Revolution’s 1793 marriage reforms to divorce her husband, Louis Guiard, a clerk she had married at age 20 but from whom she had separated in 1777.
Labille-Guiard was lucky to survive. Once “the Terror” was over in 1795, she re-emerged and was granted a modest state pension. She began producing brilliant portraits again, this time of revolutionary administrators, dramatists and her partner Vincent, whom she married in 1799.
She and Capet re-established their atelier, the first set aside for a woman in the Louvre and depicted in a later study by Capet.
She did not live long, dying in 1803, soon after her old rival Vigée-Le Brun returned bitter and rancorous from 13 years of exile painting in the counter-revolutionary courts of Europe.
Unlike Vigée-Le Brun, the subject of four biographies in the last 20 years and major recent exhibitions in Paris, Ottawa and New York, Labille-Guiard has rarely been celebrated. A superb study of her by Laura Auricchio in 2009, only the third since her death, was a step towards recognition of a prodigious talent expressed in revolutionary times.
In a new series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
Anne-Josèphe Théroigne or Terwagne (1762–1817) was born at Marcourt, a village south of Liège in modern Belgium.
From a comfortable farming family, Théroigne had a remarkably unsettled life after her mother died when she was five years old, living with relatives who provided only erratic access to education. While working as a governess she lived and studied singing in London and Paris, but also survived through unhappy relationships with far older, wealthy men.
By 1789 she was living in Rome, from where she rushed back to Paris after news arrived of a revolution that immediately inspired her with its promise of individual freedoms and civic equality.
This frail and often hated woman became a passionate advocate of a woman’s place in a democratic society before a tragic episode broke her.
Much of her life is shrouded in silence and myth. While commonly assumed to have fought at the Bastille on July 14 1789 and to have led the famous march of market women from Paris to the court at Versailles in October dressed as a man or on horseback, it seems instead that she lived at Versailles throughout the summer of 1789, attending debates at the National Assembly and meeting leading political figures.
She returned to Paris with the Assembly in October and began speaking at the democratic club des Cordeliers and on the terraces outside the Assembly. She supported the formation of mixed-sex and women’s patriotic clubs and, with other individuals such as Olympe de Gouges, the Dutch activist Etta Palm d’Aelders and the Marquis de Condorcet, an expansion of women’s civic rights.
While the word “feminism” was not used until 1837, there is no doubt about its applicability to Théroigne, who argued women,
have the same natural rights as men, so that, as a consequence, it is supremely unjust that we have not the same rights in society.
Théroigne’s outspoken presence and discourse provoked the ire of the counter-revolutionary press, in which she was the subject of vituperative mockery and allegations. She was ridiculed as a debauchee, the antithesis of femininity, a “patriots’ whore” whose 100 lovers a day each paid 100 sous in contributions to the Revolution “gained by the sweat of my body”.
It was about this time that “de Méricourt” was added to her name in the press, an inference of noble background alluding to her birthplace which she did not repudiate, a politically unwise step at a time when noble titles and privileges were being abolished.
In May 1790, Théroigne returned to Marcourt and Liège, where she was arrested on the orders of the Austrian Government, anxious about the possible contagion of revolutionary ideas across the border, and interrogated about her revolutionary activities. By the time of her release and return to Paris in January 1792 she was impoverished and suffering from depression, insomnia, and other ailments.
“La belle Liégoise”, as she was dubbed, was welcomed back enthusiastically and, once France went to war with Austria in April she began campaigning, unsuccessfully, for women’s rights to bear arms:
Frenchwomen … let us raise ourselves to the height of our destinies; let us break our chains! At last the time is ripe for women to emerge from their shameful nullity, where the ignorance, pride and injustice of men had kept them enslaved for so long …!
During the insurrection on August 10, which overthrew the monarchy and created the republic, Théroigne was involved with the killing of royalists and awarded a “civic crown” for her courage. But her sartorial flair – she enjoyed wearing her white riding habit and large round hat in public – and her political choices made her unpopular with women of the people.
As the military position of the republic became more precarious, and the economy worsened, Paris and France became violently divided. Paris itself was a militant republican Jacobin city, but Théroigne preferred the more conservative Girondins. In vain she wrote a passionate pamphlet urging the election of women representatives with “the glorious ministry of uniting the citizens and of inculcating in them the respect for freedom of opinions”.
On May 15 1793, she was attacked by a group of Jacobin women outside the doors of the National Convention. The women, objecting to her pro-Girondin sentiments, lifted her dress and whipped her bared flesh.
Théroigne never fully recovered mentally or physically, and on 20 September 1794 she was certified insane and put into an asylum. It was a time when the first “scientific” diagnoses were being made of “dementia”, but the physical surrounds were medieval. She was ultimately sent to La Salpêtrière Hospital in 1807, where she lived in terrible squalor for ten years, only intermittently lucid and speaking constantly about the Revolution.
There the “alienist” (as psychiatrists were then called) Étienne Esquirol used her as a case-study of the mental illness caused by revolutionary “excess”. Following a short illness, she died there on 9 June 1817.
Théroigne was a charismatic but tragic figure who inspired later romanticised and creative works, for example, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857):
See Théroigne, by blood and fire enraged,
Hounding a shoeless rabble to the fray,
Who plays herself on a flaming stage,
As she climbs, sword in hand, the royal stairway.
She has especially interested male writers fascinated by the links they imagine between women, madness and revolution. Indeed, in 1989 Simon Schama closed his best-selling Citizens with Théroigne’s sad incarceration as its epilogue, as if to imply that revolution drives women to feminism and madness.
The same year, this male fascination was explored by the Lacanian psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco, who brilliantly exposed the links between early feminism, the birth of the modern asylum and masculine phantasms.
Whereas the English title of her biography is Madness and Revolution, in French it was Une femme mélancolique: for Roudinesco, Théroigne was not mad in 1794, rather she was in mourning for the revolution she had lost.