Please NOTE: I received early access to this manuscript in exchange for working an impartial review. Thank you NetGalley and She Writes Press. Publication: August 30, 2022. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
THE PORTRAITIST: A NOVEL OF ADELAIDE LABILLE-GUIARD is an historical novel recounting the life of a little-known but talented French artist who, because she is a woman, struggles all her life to gain the kind of opportunities and recognition male artists at the time received. As the author explains in the Afterword, not much has been written about this woman which allowed Susanne Dunlap some leeway, for example, to add more substance to a supposed rivalry between Adélaïde and another more famous woman painter of the time, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842).
Though we so often think of French society as one that has always honored arts of all kinds, the truth is that they, like most others, have only done so through the lens of patriarchy. Chauvinism played a major role in the challenges of her personal life as well, but it was learning about the life of a female artist in 18th century France that was fascinating to me.
Below: The Art of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard
Adélaïde, though artistically gifted from childhood, is unable to access the kind of training readily available to men. Nor, as she ages, is she able to recruit the same calibre of students who study with men. She isn’t paid as much as a male teachers. Her commissioned art doesn’t command as high a price as her male contemporaries. Nor is she eligible for the kind of government subsidies available to artists like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
Instead Adélaïde must rely on her own formidable determination to secure an important mentor in the artist François-André Vincent (1746-1816) and to attract the notice of prominent patrons. Enough so that eventually she is one of the few women admitted to the elite Académie Royale.
Adélaïde (1749-1803) also lived through interesting times and her story cannot be separated from the unfolding of the French Revolution, and it’s life-changing effects on all levels of French society, including the art world. Historical events force artists relying on patronage for their survival to shift allegiances first from powerful nobles in the court of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, then to the men who rule during the Reign of Terror, and then again after these leaders too are executed.
It’s Adélaïde’s success, DESPITE all the obstacles, that held my interest. That, and my own admiration for her art. There are a few places where I thought the pace of the novel slowed and a few significant jumps in time toward the end that felt jarring, like I’d missed something. But overall, highly recommended!
More about the author, Susanne Dunlap.