Studio Interior by Marie Gabrielle Capet: A Mile Stone in Female Art History?
A Painting that features in my WEA course Women in Art
The French artist, Marie Gabrielle Capet, painted Studio Interior in 1808 at the height of the Napoleonic Empire, and, despite the rather unhelpful title, it’s clearly intended to mark an important moment in women’s struggle to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of art. As is often the case though, the painting poses as many questions as it provides answers.
The painting depicts a scene from maybe five to seven years earlier. Capet herself is seated on the left, looking out at us. She’s preparing colours for the women painting, her old tutor, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, or Madame Vincent as she is now.
Labille-Guiard enjoyed a long career as a portrait artist, spanning the twilight of the Ancien Regime, the Revolution and Napoleon. Despite her humble origins, in the years before the Revolution she became a successful artist at court. She is invariably compared to another successful female artist, Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun. The pair’s careers ran remarkably similar paths. They were both accepted in the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture on the same day, 31st May, 1783. Where Labille Guiard enjoyed the patronage of the King’s sister, Princess Marie Adélaïde, Vigée-Lebrun was a particular favourite of Queen Marie-Antoinette. That two other female artists were also accepted into the academy that day, suggests that women were making significant inroads into this male bastion. Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait of the following year, exhibited at the prestigious Salons, shows a confident woman in a fashionable satin dress and jaunty hat, seated at an easel painting, and attended by two eager pupils, one of them Marie Gabrielle Capet.
Generally speaking the proliferation of female artists was to continue during the Revolution, but having an association with the Royal family – particularly the hated L’Austriche, Marie-Antoinette - became a decided disadvantage. With the downfall of the Monarchy, Vigée-Lebrun soon fled France and moved around the royal courts of Europe. Labille-Guiard, bravely, remained in France, continuing to work as a painter and tutor throughout the Terror and the Directory. If she undertook far less exalted works now, she retained the respect of many of her male fellow artists - not least her great friend and mentor, François-André Vincent, The two eventually married in 1800.
France by now was emerging from the turmoil of Revolution. A new political system, the Consulate, dominated by Napoleon, was completing the badly needed reforms started during the Revolution. Marie Gabrielle’s painting captures something of the grandeur of this new epoch, while recording a moment of vindication for her old tutor.
In what is clearly a very prestigious commission, Labille-Guiard is shown painting a man in senatorial robes. This is Joseph-Marie Vien, now in his eighties, but with a reputation as one of the supreme masters of French painting. By his side are drawings for some unknown work. Behind Labille-Guiard, François-André Vincent leans into the painting to point out something to his wife.
But who are the others who Capet shows respectfully in attendance of a woman artist. If nothing else, logic would suggest that the group of men to the left are fellow artists. Who they are I don’t know, but none bears any resemblance to the dominant figure of French painting, Jacques-Louis David. The man and woman behind Vien, are very likely his family, while beyond the green table are possibly his associates in art or politics
And what of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard? The ebullient courtier painter of 1783 has gone. Here she wears a simple Empire-style dress, her hair gathered up roughly in a turban. She looks absorbed, taking in the point her husband is making, but there is, maybe, a touch of frailty about her.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard died in 1803 so this would have been one of her last paintings. Marie Gabrielle Capet clearly painted this as an homage to her tutor and a woman who had done so much to pave the way for women to enter artistic careers. There was still much to achieve in this respect: Alarmed at the number of women coming forward, the French Academy soon moved to limit to four the number of women who could take up places at it’s school. One step forward, two steps back…