The Contrived Rivalry Between Two Pioneering French Women Artists

Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted with permission and adapted from Portrait of a Woman: Art, Rivalry, and Revolution in the Life of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard by Bridget Quinn, published by Chronicle Books on April 16 and available online and in bookstores.

Do you know the term chiaroscuro? Maybe you remember it from an art history course you took once, or some half-forgotten book. Or maybe you know it well. It’s a word that feels good in your mouth. Chiaroscuro. It means “light and dark.” 

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Western painting owes its illusionistic realism to the play of light and shadow. Both visually and metaphorically, chiaroscuro is how we comprehend the world. Without the devil there is no god. No hero without their antagonist. No heroine either. Literature knows this. Art history, too. Which is one reason why, whenever French 18th-century artist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard is mentioned, it’s almost always as a counterpoint to her better-known “rival,” Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. But also, when it comes to women of talent, the world loves a cat fight. It was true then and still is now, see: Beyoncé “vs” Taylor; Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese; etc. ad nauseam.

In late-18th-century France, no one understood competition — its pleasures and profits — better than impresario Claude-Mammès Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie, a Paris P. T. Barnum who was a producer, promoter, salesman, and huckster. A little bit brilliant, quite a bit déclassé, and a hell of a lot of fun, La Blancherie ignited one of the great rivalries in art.

In 1777 La Blancherie debuted an influential exhibition, he would come to call the Salon de la Correspondance. In practice, this was a weekly hodgepodge display of “works in all genres” — that is, anything fabulous that caught his fancy — from locksmithing to metallurgy to animal husbandry to painting, sculpture, and more, most of it for sale, all of it lauded in La Blancherie’s effusive publication Les Nouvelles de la République des Lettres et des Arts (NRLA), meaning What’s New in the Republic of Arts and Letters. NRLA reported on all that had been seen, enjoyed, marveled at, or overheard at the Salon de la Correspondance. 

La Blancherie soon saw that the official Académie Royale’s strict limits on membership had left many French artists out in the cold. Especially women artists. During the eight-year existence of the Salon de la Correspondance, he welcomed many artists unable to join the Académie, including at least 19 women. For two of them — Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun — the publicity attending their Salon de la Correspondance exhibitions would prove decisive to history.

Implicitly understanding the uncanny fascination of pairs, among the wonders La Blancherie displayed in the spring of 1782 were a two-headed calf and, as described by him, “A hen, alive, having laterally to the right and left two ovarian openings with entirely separated wombs, located in such a manner as to allow zero doubt as to their communication. . . . For most monsters of this species, one of the two embryos is incomplete, but in this one they are both perfect.” In short, he had a thing for doubling. A two-headed calf. Poultry sporting two vaginas. Two impressive women painters — not necessarily monsters, but maybe not entirely natural either.

That same spring, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard showed at the Salon de la Correspondance for the first time, with a charming pendant pair that included her exhilarating pastel “Delightful Surprise” alongside a similar portrait of a young man. But the pair La Blancherie chose to promote that spring was not Adélaïde’s couple riding the naughty currents of rococo, but her quiet pastel self-portrait — held up against a stunning self-portrait oil by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Wonder of wonders! Freaks of nature! Two women artists! Impossible aberrations of nature that could somehow, inexplicably, still create beautiful forms to compare and contrast. 

Compare. What do the two self-portraits most obviously share? Gender: female. Hair: unpowdered. Hats: befeathered. Earrings: dangling. Hands: paintbrushes and palettes capably grasped in the left.

Contrast. How do they most clearly diverge? Media: pastel versus oil. Posture: sitting versus standing. Location: studio versus outdoors. Attire: fichu-covered chest versus plunging neckline. Smile: Close-lipped versus lips slightly parted.

 Since the current location of Adélaïde’s pastel is unknown, and the only reproduction is in black and white, it’s difficult to compare the artworks in terms of color, tone, or handling. But on this very score — the artists’ comparative styles — La Blancherie had plenty to say, commending Adélaïde’s “perfect resemblance” and Élisabeth’s“charming productions.” Their work is still compared in similar terms today, Adélaïde viewed as the more rigorously realistic (a.k.a. masculine), with Élisabeth regaled as an amiable flatterer (feminine, naturally).

La Blancherie kicked off a rivalry between two women who had nothing to be rivals about except that they both existed in a world not intended for them. And yet, the world does love a cat fight, which he of course understood. As he enthused in the NRLA, “The self-portraits of two women artists, which chance has brought together as pendants, have created a highly piquant spectacle.” Which chance has brought together? La Blancherie himself hung the show — et voilà! — among dozens of offerings, self-portraits by two women hung as pendants. Not just their canvases, but the two of them as artists, and as women, to be publicly compared. This is the piquant part (“spicy” in my French-to-English dictionary; “engagingly provocative” according to Merriam-Webster’s). And from this moment forward critics tended to compare the two women artists to each other rather than to any of their male colleagues. A “rivalry” had begun.

It is impossible to know quite what the public assessed that June since we don’t have Adélaïde’s pastel for clear comparison. What is clear, though, is that her pastel was held up against an oil painting that is still much celebrated for its beauty and brio. One version of Élisabeth’s “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” hangs today in London’s National Gallery. Also in the National Gallery is the work upon which she based her painting, “Portrait of Susanna Lunden” by Peter Paul Rubens (long inexplicably called “The Straw Hat,” though the hat depicted is not straw). While Élisabeth hewed literally to the straw hat title in creating her own image, she also entirely understood the thing in Rubens’s portrait that is essential to its appeal. Not the hat, but the play of sunlight and gentle shadow across the pale face of a pretty young woman. 

Élisabeth was inspired by Ruben’s use of light and color, but she diverged from him in her depiction of temperament. Her own self-portrait reveals how a woman sees herself. Where the Flemish master’s Susanna glances out shyly from under her hat, the barest hint of a smile on her pale lips, as if embarrassed to be looked at and apologizing for it, Élisabeth looks directly out from her painting, charismatic and confident, her cherry lips glossy and parted so we can glimpse her teeth.

How can Adélaïde possibly compete? Here, she can’t. In her self-portrait she is a little stiff, like a middle school student on picture day. Where Élisabeth is all energy and charm, the class beauty who is sure of her social standing, Adélaïde is the nerdy hopeful wearing what should be the right clothes, done her hair in the current style, all of it, but can’t quite pull it off. She hopes not to be mocked, knowing in advance how much she will be judged. Not just her technique and craft, but her whole self, including and especially her appearance. Her looks were often publicly judged and found wanting, particularly in comparison with her “rival.” 

Adélaïde’s 1782 self-portrait is more an advertisement of ability — perfect feathers, transparent fichu, glinting earrings, shiny silken reflets — than a statement of self. It is not about her, in a sense, but about what she can make those brushes do. Her small, close-lipped smile feels forced, as if to say I am supposed to smile so no one calls me angry.

Whether or not Élisabeth’s canvas is larger than Adélaïde’s lost pastel, it certainly feels bigger. Cinematic. She, too, sports brushes and a palette, but Élisabeth displays her own palette fully charged with paints alongside a plunging neckline, her décolletage offered up with a bow. The artist as starlet, self-consciously so. 

A duel was now engaged in earnest, one created for public consumption rather than stemming from personal animosity. It’s impossible to know how Adélaïde and Élisabeth really felt about each other since we have no firsthand accounts, but surely there would have sometimes been bruising and hard feelings since one received mostly positive feedback at the expense of the other. They were set up as foils, and it can be tempting to play the character written for you. Still, we have no evidence of personal animosity between Adélaïde and Élisabeth, though no evidence that they were friendly either. To anyone who has attended high school, all of it — the competition, the wary circling, the cliques — is utterly understandable.

So the rivalry is a manufactured one, but the stakes were real. Élisabeth, who was already the favorite painter of Queen Marie Antoinette, unflinchingly allies herself with the old masters, while Adélaïde parries with a series of pastel portraits to claim her place among the current masters of French art. Between 1782 and 1783 Adélaïde showed six portraits at the Salon de la Correspondance. Her subjects were all members of the Académie Royale, including her childhood friend and current teacher, François-André Vincent, and his own teacher, Joseph-Marie Vien (recent head of the Académie Royale in Rome), as well as her family friend, the sculptor Augustin Pajou, who is depicted modeling a bust of his own teacher, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne.

It was a brilliant move. By creating portraits of important members of the Académie Royale, Adélaïde was securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire her ability as well. It was also a way of publicly establishing that she belonged among these men, both by ability and by artistic legacy. In depicting her teacher, Vincent, and her teacher’s teacher, Vien, she claimed her place in an important lineage of French art. In his journal, La Blancherie loudly proclaimed “the confidence in her talents demonstrated by these distinguished men.” Then added that such work “completely destroys the false opinion that envy or ignorance has hastened to spread . . . that the merit of her works was owed to a foreign hand.” That sly La Blancherie: Out of one side of his mouth he praises Adélaïde, while with the other he drops in a certain slander that a man (that is, Vincent) is responsible for her work. It’s a little like a chicken laying eggs from two holes, or a two-headed calf. Two for one.

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Adélaïde was hardly the only one who experienced such accusations. Élisabeth faced them too, as have many women artists throughout history. And sometimes still do.


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