With limited training as a miniaturist, Adélaïde Labille embarked upon a professional career before she was twenty. Early in the 1770s she learned pastel technique from Maurice Quentin de La Tour and studied oil painting with François André Vincent (1746–1816). Having been admitted to full membership in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783, she taught and promoted female artists. She was skilled at capturing the moods of her sitters, bringing their mobile expressions closely into view. In this study for a more formal portrait, she portrays the younger sister of Louis XVI, who eventually followed him to the guillotine. The simple costume of Madame Élisabeth (1764–1794) accords with her gentle manner.
Labille-Guiard's clients are most often presented in bust- or half-length against a shaded ground of a solid color, bringing her sitters' faces and costumes closely into view. She was admired by her contemporaries for her skill at capturing their expressions. It seems likely that she had a taste for relative simplicity of attire which she could not always indulge. In her pastels, still life details, if any, while painted with care, are not permitted to detract from the unflinching gaze with which she usually endowed her subjects. Here she portrays Madame Élisabeth (1764–1794), who was born at Versailles, the youngest sister of Louis XVI (1754–1793). The princess, orphaned at the age of three, was devoted to her brother and close to her maiden aunts, the so-called Mesdames de France. A pious, conservative, highly educated young woman, she seems to have led an innocent and blameless life. She accompanied the King and Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) to their prison in the Temple and followed them to the guillotine.
In accordance with common practice, Labille-Guiard must have prepared the present pastel from life sittings, later bringing it to a high degree of finish, in preparation for the large and much more elaborate three-quarter-length portrait in oils (private collection) which she exhibited to high praise at the Salon of 1787. The simple costume the princess wears for this study sets off her face and accords well with the gentle reserve of her manner. She wears a redingote with gold buttons and a starched fichu. A muslin cap rests on her fair hair, which is dressed wide and lightly powdered: the artist has picked out some of the individual strands in a variety of delicate colors. The work was later enlarged and the additions to the original sheet of paper were painted by another hand.
[Katharine Baetjer 2012]
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Paris (until d. 1803); François-André Vincent, Paris (1803–d. 1816; his estate sale, Paris, October 17–19, 1816, no. 56, listed among pastels as "Celui de Madame Élisabeth," for Fr 200 to Capet); Marie Gabrielle Capet, Paris (1816–d. 1818; posthumous inv., November 14, 1818, as "Un portrait au pastel de Mme Élisabeth par Me Guiard sous verre et cadre doré, prisé 50 F"); Jacques Mayer (in 1909); [Madame Louis (Elisabeth Wildenstein) Paraf, Paris, by 1963]; [Galerie Pardo, Paris]; [William H. Schab Gallery, New York, until 1969; sold to Stafford]; Mrs. Frederick M. Stafford, New York and New Orleans (1969– 2007)
Paris. Palais de Bagatelle. "Portraits de femmes sous les trois Républiques," 1909, no. 128 (lent by M[onsieur]. J. Mayer).
New York. William H. Schab Gallery. "Pastel and Gouache Drawings of the Eighteenth Century from French Collections," October 17–November 15, 1969, no. 22.
New York. Wildenstein. "The Odyssey Continues," November 17, 2006–February 9, 2007, no. 37 (as lent from a private collection, New Orleans).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-Century Europe," May 17–August 14, 2011, no. 27.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Eighteenth-Century Pastels," August 6–December 29, 2013, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits," July 26–October 29, 2017, no catalogue.
Roger Portalis. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803). Paris, 1902, pp. 87, 94.
Anne-Marie Passez. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1749–1803: Biographie et catalogue raisonné de son oeuvre. Paris, 1973, pp. 172, 178, 312–13, no. 76, pl. LXIII, calls it a pastel replica of "the original" (no. 72, exh. at the Paris Salon of 1787) or a preparatory study; provides provenance and publishes the 1816 posthumous sale of Labille-Guiard's husband, F.-A. Vincent, and the 1818 posthumous inventory of Mademoiselle Capet, both of which included this pastel.
Neil Jeffares. Dictionary of Pastellists Before 1800. London, 2006, p. 271, ill.
Mary Sprinson de Jesús. "Adélaïde Labille-Guiard's Pastel Studies of the Mesdames de France." Metropolitan Museum Journal 43 (2008), pp. 157–72, figs. 1 and 10 (color, overall and detail), discusses it in relation to Labille-Guiard's pastel portraits of Madame Adélaïde and Madame Victoire; identifies them as "among a very few pastel studies, handled with great immediacy, that prepared the way for her more ambitious, monumental portrait style"; remarks that these studies were "produced at the very end of the great age of pastel, at a moment when the artist herself was in the process of evolving from pastelist to oil painter"; views them as more direct reflections of their sitters' characters than Labille-Guiard's finished oil paintings.
Laura Auricchio. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution. Los Angeles, 2009, p. 123, no. U18, as a study for the portrait of Madame Élisabeth sold at Piasa, Paris, in 1996.
Katharine Baetjer and Marjorie Shelley. "Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-Century Europe." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 68 (Spring 2011), pp. 11, 38–39, no. 27, ill. (color, detail).