Creating a Female History Painter: Vigée-Lebrun, Labille-Guiard, Mongez, and the French Academy
Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), and Angélique Mongez (1775-1855) were three highly successful and influential artists of the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Previously, little attention has been paid, however, to the history paintings created by them and their respective presentation in the Salons of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and, later, at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This thesis offers the first sustained consideration of Vigée-Lebrun, Labille-Guiard, and Mongez as history painters, and the first discussion connecting the three women. In three chapters, I consider the careers and oeuvre of the artists and their efforts to elevate themselves to the status of and define themselves as history painters, considered the most elite group within the French Academic system. In the process, I discuss Vigée-Lebrun’s reception pieces for the Académie Royale in 1783; Labille-Guiard’s commission for a painting illustrating a member of the royal family in 1788; and finally, Mongez, who was one of the first women to successfully present a history painting to the French Salon in 1802. I argue that these women presented themselves as history painters through strategic career moves, as women could not officially be designated as history painters through the Academic system. Examining each of their careers in turn, I chart a lineage from the achievements and failures of the three artists in their endeavors to identify themselves as painters of this elevated genre. This analysis offers new insights into what defined a history painter in the period, and how contemporary women were affected by it.