Why the Underdog? Or, How I Came to Write a Novel about Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

by Susanne Dunlap
published in Writing

It would have been much easier—at least, from the point of view of research—to write a novel about the life of painter Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Le Brun’s surviving output is extensive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York did a massive exhibition of her work in 2016. To top it off, she left a three-volume autobiography, probably penned by an amanuensis because she was rather old. We know quite a bit about Le Brun’s life, starting with her childhood. About Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (eventually Vincent), we know comparatively little. Also, many fewer of Adélaïde’s works have survived the ravages of time, ravages that included the French Revolution, where it is reported that a number of her paintings and pastels were destroyed in a bonfire. Even gathering all of the works in all the museums around the world would result in a modest one-woman show.

In fact, I started out writing a novel about Elisabeth (as I called her, although in some sources they refer to her as Louise—the French double-first-naming thing is tricky). I thought at first it would be another in my growing oeuvre of young adult historical novels. Although her youth in a convent school and her father’s death when she was twelve were poignant—as well as her training and friendship with pastellist Rosalie Filleul—I soon discovered that the most interesting parts of her life occurred when she was an adult. She was under thirty when she became Marie Antoinette’s official portraitist, and had an inside view of court life.

However, Elisabeth fled Paris in 1789, when it was clear her ties to the court made it unsafe for her to remain. She spent the Revolution traveling around Europe from court to court, painting portraits and being celebrated. Her husband divorced her in absentia during the Terror to preserve his own life (he’d stayed behind, she took their daughter with her), and she didn’t return to Paris until 1800. 

Early attempts

After I figured out that Elisabeth’s story should be an adult novel, I started writing it in the first person. I think I got about fifty pages in and realized that I was just sort of rewriting her autobiography. I didn’t want to do that. I figured I’d have to switch to third person at the very least.

In the meantime, I thought I’d find out what Elisabeth had to say about her chief rival, Adélaïde. After all, they’d both exhibited publicly for the first time at the Académie de Saint-Luc salon in 1774, and were elected to the Académie Royale at the same time, in 1783. Surely they knew each other.

The advantage to reading something as an eBook is that you can search the text. I searched all three volumes of Elisabeth’s autobiography for every version I could conjure of Adélaïde’s name, and—nada. I found a couple of places where she made a veiled reference to her rival, but she never mentioned her by name.


And the manuscript thickens

This started me thinking: What did the two women artists, the most famous women artists of their time in Paris, know of or feel about each other? How might they have interacted? For that, I had to dig into research about Adélaïde.

I was soon frustrated by the relative paucity of existing material. Thank heavens for Laura Auricchio’s book, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009). That source, along with a much earlier short biography by Roger Portalis (1902) furnished most of the information I was able to glean about her life and career.

Armed with this, as well as some fascinating research about Rosalie Filleul—who drew portraits of her neighbor in Passy, Benjamin Franklin, and was guillotined during the Terror—I wrote a massive (for me) novel with three points of view.

Writers always look for beta readers when they have a draft polished enough for people to read, and I’m so grateful to my friends who slogged through that manuscript. I also workshopped it, and submitted it for a meeting with an editor through the Muse and the Marketplace conference.

Response was virtually unanimous: It was just too much. And the character that resonated most with everyone wasn’t Elisabeth or Rosalie, but Adélaïde. She was the one who had to struggle in her career. The true underdog. She was also the one who became involved in the politics of the Revolution, worked (unsuccessfully) to reform the Académie, painted a portrait of Robespierre, and fled Paris (but not France) during the worst years of the Terror.

Kill all your darlings

So, I started again. I had some material I could salvage from the earlier draft, but really, it was a complete rewrite, which I began in 2020. After several drafts, many revisions, and chopping off the first fifty pages, The Portraitist: a Novel of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard came into existence. And this focused, more manageable novel is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

I was able to make a logical progression of Adélaïde’s career, of the choices she made or might have made—lack of documented history can be a boon to a fiction writer. Reader, I invented stuff. I hewed closely to the known facts, but that still left a lot of room for filling in motivations and emotions.

I fell so in love with Adélaïde. But that left me still wondering about Elisabeth. She had made such different choices. And even with the abundance of information available, an autobiography is notoriously unreliable. She wanted to control the narrative about her life. Why? I wasn’t finished with her.

Elisabeth will rise again

I have already written enough to make an entire second novel about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m creating a series of novellas, called Behind the Painted Fan, which I have yet to figure out how to publish so readers can enjoy them as a gloss on The Portraitist. As I deepen my acquaintance with Elisabeth, I’m finding so much more in her to celebrate that gets beyond the rather egomaniacal self-portrait in words. As always in such cases of professional rivalry, the two women probably had completely mistaken views of each other.

The novellas are my attempt to give modern readers a chance to get to know not just Adélaïde as I envision her, but Elisabeth, too. Whichever one of them was more successful, they both faced similar challenges and found ways to survive and prevail. And that’s nothing short of inspiring.

Susanne Dunlap is the author of twelve works of historical fiction for adults and teens, as well as an Author Accelerator Certified Book Coach. Her love of historical fiction arose partly from her studies in music history at Yale University (PhD, 1999), partly from her lifelong interest in women in the arts as a pianist and non-profit performing arts executive. Her novel The Paris Affair won first place in its category in the CIBA Dante Rossetti awards for Young Adult Fiction. The Musician’s Daughter was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Bank Street Children’s Book of the Year, and was nominated for the Utah Book Award and the Missouri Gateway Reader’s Prize. In the Shadow of the Lamp was an Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award nominee. Susanne earned her BA and an MA (musicology) from Smith College, and lives in Biddeford, ME, with her little dog Betty.
You can find her on her website or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Enjoyed this article?