“Impeccably researched, rich with period detail, Dunlap brings to life the little-known true story of Adelaide Labille-Guiard, who fought her husband and society to make a name for herself as a painter to the royal family, the very apex of success. A stunning story of determination, talent, and reversals of fortune. As a lifelong Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun fan, I am now questioning my allegiances!”
9 Questions with Susanne Dunlap
What inspired you to write about Adélaïde Labille-Guiard?
I’ve always been interested in women in the arts, and the eighteenth century has a special place in my heart (my dissertation was about eighteenth-century opera). Also, Adélaïde’s self-portrait with her two students that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY is a huge favorite of mine. But originally, when I first conceived of the book, I thought of her in relation to her rival, Vigée Le Brun. Through research I began to know her in her own right, and to appreciate how different her life must have been from her rival’s, how much more stood in her way. I also love the difference in her painting style from Le Brun’s. It feels much more real, more present, less beautiful in a good way.
Why focus on Adélaïde instead of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun?
Originally I thought I would write about Vigée Le Brun. But I love an underdog, and after discovering that they literally followed each other’s footsteps—but Le Brun doesn’t even mention her rival’s name in her three-volume memoir—I was intrigued.
Of course art plays an important role in this book. Are you an artist as well as a musician and writer?
Alas, I am no artist! I took a drawing class in college, but… no. I love art and have always gone to museums, and have done a lot of reading about art history and artists. As research for this book, I did read an 18th-century treatise on oil painting. However, as André Vincent says to Adélaïde before he starts to teach her, there’s a great deal of difference between reading a treatise and actually making art.
While the story is based on a true story, there are some characters that you’ve created. Which of the characters are real?
Most of the characters are, in fact, historical. The ones I’ve created are Adélaïde’s first student (the rest of the named students are historical), her father’s lover, and a few very minor, walk-on characters. However, I took major liberties with the characters of her father and her estranged husband to the point where I might as well have invented them, partly because there was very little available information about them. In those cases, the story comes first.
Did Adélaïde really do a portrait of Robespierre and get a huge commission from the Comte de Provence just as the revolution was starting?
Yep. All true. All the paintings mentioned in the book existed at one time or still exist. The two mentioned in this question are among those that were probably destroyed during the Revolution.
Did Adélaïde really sell erotic pastels?
Alas, no. At least, I could find no evidence of such a thing. However, erotic drawings were a lucrative trade in 18th-century Paris, and my cash-strapped heroine could easily have decided to capitalize on her talents in this way.
What were some of the struggles of women in 18th Century Paris faced, primarily those Adélaïde Labille-Guiard would have dealt with being a female artist?
The struggles had to do with lack of access for women to the infrastructure of success. Institutionalized misogyny, so to speak. Women couldn’t belong to guilds, and were only admitted to some academies in very restricted numbers. They also couldn’t attend classes at the Louvre, except with Briard, who was allowed to teach women. All the life drawing classes were closed to them of course, and even the best women artists couldn’t get the perks given to the men, namely free housing and studio space in the Louvre. That was something Adelaide fought for, and was finally awarded in 1795, after the Revolution, but before Napoleon’s time. Royal patronage was one of the few avenues in which they could compete, and both Adelaide and her rival benefited from that.
How important is Adélaïde Labille-Guiard to the art landscape of 18th Century Paris and perhaps beyond?
I think that because she was such an influential teacher as well as an artist, she probably had an impact on many young artists that we don’t even really know about, since she was pretty much ignored as a painter throughout the 19th century. But when she died, she was Madame Vincent, her identity completely bound up with her position as a married woman. I also think that by digging into these lesser-known women artists, we learn a lot more about the norm rather than the exceptions. Her work is beautiful, beyond a doubt, but so few examples survived her that it’s hard to accurately gauge her compared to other artists.
With the arts being such central influences in your literary work, what are some other works you’ve published that readers will enjoy?
This is the first time I’ve written about a female artist. I’m a music historian, so I’ve featured women musicians more often. My historical mystery series that takes place mostly in 18th-century Vienna features a young violinist whose godfather is Haydn. Those books are THE MUSICIAN’S DAUGHTER, THE MOZART CONSPIRACY, and THE PARIS AFFAIR. My first two novels also featured women musicians: ÉMILIE’S VOICE and LISZT’S KISS.
Susanne 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.
Click and Pre-Order The Portraitist on Amazon.
Visit Amazon for Susanne’s Books:
Follow Susanne on social media:
© 2014-2022- Ronovan Hester Copyright reserved. The author asserts his moral and legal rights over this work.
2 thoughts on “9 Questions with Susanne Dunlap, author of The Portraitist.”
Excellent interview! It’s definitely peaked my interest to read this novel; The Portraitist. Good job, as always, Ronovan. I still have great memories of your pirate novel… I’ll have to reread it.