The Portraitist: A Novel of Adelaide Labille-Guiard

Written by Susanne Dunlap
Review by B. J. Sedlock

This is a novel about the career of pioneering female painter Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who was starting to rise in the French art world just before the Revolution. It begins in 1774, when Adélaïde is unhappily married to Nicolas, who disapproves of her desire to paint. She leaves his abuse and goes to her father’s house, where he offers her money and help getting a separation. Adélaïde’s goal is to be named a member of the Académie Royale, which admits very few women. She creates erotic pastels to earn money for artists’ supplies, and begins lessons with François-André Vincent, an up-and-coming painter. They eventually fall in love but can’t marry because divorce is illegal in France. Adélaïde begins teaching young women who want to learn to paint, as she works on canvases that might be submitted to the Académie. She worries that her personal life might be seen as immoral, despite eventually achieving commissions from members of the royal family. But the French Revolution looms, and her associations with royalty might cost her her life.

Dunlap’s author’s note says that the major characters were real people, although she took liberties with some of them, and that there is no evidence that Adélaïde is responsible for the erotic pastels, though the pictures did exist at the time. Adélaïde is portrayed as a proto-feminist, wanting to break into the normally closed male art world, and regretting that the social changes being brought about by the Revolution still did not give women a voice in society. The struggles of a single woman who wanted to work outside the home in that time period are vividly brought to life, as is the electric excitement among the proletariat once the Revolution begins. I enjoyed learning about the French art world and recommend this novel.