Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1769 and to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1783. This resilient young woman was and still is often compared with Vigée-Le Brun who was then painter to the queen. Labille-Guiard herself became painter to ‘Mesdames’, the aunts of king Louis XVI in 1787. Thanks to this title, but also to the numerous contacts she made in the artistic and society circles of the time, the talented portraitist received commissions from many members of the nobility. Later, Labille-Guiard sympathised with the ideals of the Revolution, and, unlike Vigée-Le Brun, remained in France.
The painting presented here is, according to her biographer in 1902, ‘one of her most successful paintings’ (see Literature). Signed by the artist, our splendid portrait depicts a lady of proud carriage, with no ornaments in her hair or jewels adorning her very simple blue-grey dress and scarf of a darker shade. Neither the closed fan nor the discreet earring indicate the sitter’s social rank: only the natural distinction that emanates from her presence could be a clue left by the painter. The duchess was particularly integrated into fashionable circles at the end of the Ancien Régime. As part of the exclusive circle of the Palais-Royal, she mixed with this world through her husband, an intimate friend of the duc d’Orléans. She became friends with the comtesse Charles de Lameth – also painted by Labille-Guiard – with whom she lived during the Revolution at the château de Busagny, near Pontoise.
Thanks to the curly hairstyle and the costume, in fashion in 1790, the painting can be dated to that year. There is also a discernable relationship between this portrait and that of Madame de Genlis, signed and dated by the artist (‘Labille dme Guiard 1790’) . Furthermore, it is likely that the portrait of the duchess’s husband (signed and dated ‘Labille fme Guiard l’an 2e de la liberté’)  was painted later to serve as a pendant (fig. 2). The couple were in effect depicted symmetrically, half-length and turned three-quarters so they could be placed face to face. Likewise, in both case oil was used, rather than pastel, and the dimensions match exactly, which confirms the theory that they were pendants.
The beginning of this year was an empty passage for the artist, who no longer received commissions from the daughters of Louis XV, who were about to go into exile. A page of her life had been turned and she needed to acquire a new clientele. Only in the second half of 1790 was Labille-Guiard introduced to the circle of the duc d’Orléans. It was probably while going to Bellechasse to paint the portraits of Madame de Genlis and the princesse Adélaide d’Orléans that she had the chance to meet certain prominent political figures of that time: the duc d’Aiguillon first and foremost, but also Alexandre, vicomte de Beauharnais, Charles and Alexandre, comtes de Lameth.
Not long after the present portrait was finished, Anne-Marie de Lameth and Jeanne-Victoire-Henriette d’Aiguillon were arrested and imprisoned in the former Carmelite convent until the end of the Reign of Terror. After her liberation, the duchess re-joined her husband in London and accompanied him to Hamburg, where they remained until his death on 4 May 1800. She remarried Louis, marquis de Girardin (1767-1848), with whom she had three children. For a time lady in waiting to the queen of Spain, Julie Clary, wife of Joseph Bonaparte, Jeanne-Victoire-Henriette d’Aiguillon died in 1818, at the age of forty-eight.
During her exile in the Oise, the brother of the comtes de Lameth, Théodore, took refuge in 1793 at the château de Busagney where the duchess was staying. In his memoirs, he extols the memory of the beautiful duchess: ‘I seem to see Madame d’Aiguillon, model of all imposing and ravishing forms and of all the charms of beauty. What would I want to do with her melancholy sadness, her scorn for our oppressors, her noble, proud indifference to her own dangers, her honourable fears for my own and her tender compassion’. And, indeed, the duchess was reputed to be one of the most beautiful women of her time; to the point that some affirmed that her portrait, so emblematic of the feminine ideal of the second half of the 18th century, could be considered the Mona Lisa (fig. 3) of the Enlightenment.
Concerning the state of conservation, Anne-Marie Passez already judged in 1971 that it was ‘excellent’ (see Literature), thus permitting the appreciation of the portrait’s beautiful execution. Thanks to its quality, this portrait is a milestone in the history of art and the maturation of the artist: it is a modern portrait: the Louis XVI period is over, giving way to the evolutions and new reflections provoked by the French Revolution. Furthermore, this painting is a sweet testimony to a privileged relationship between the artist and her sitter, as evinced by the relaxed nature of the pose. Painting slowly (only about a dozen canvases per year), Labille-Guiard studied the psychology of her sitters in order to reveal their personality and character. Having argued in vain for the opening of the Académie royale de peinture to all women with no restrictions on their numbers, Labille-Guiard is firmly grounded in the history of women’s art. Over the last century, these pioneers have been rediscovered, at last valued on their own merit – without consideration of their sex – and appreciated by the art market, which has at last recognised the audacity and talent of these female painters.
 Portrait of Madame de Genlis, oil on canvas, 74 x 60 cm ; recorded in the collection of Mrs. Harry Blunt, Bethseda, Maryland; see Passez 1971, pp. 232-234, cat. no. 111, repr. Pl. LXXXIX on p. 233.
 Portrait of the duc d’Aiguillon, oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm ; recorded in a French private collection; see Passez 1971, pp. 252-253, cat. no. 123, repr. Pl. XCVIIIL on p. 253.
 E. Welwert, Mémoires de Théodore de Lamerth, Paris, Fontemoing, 1913, p. 285 cited in Passez 1971, p. 236.
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