A special excerpt from The portraitist (Available Tuesday, august 30) by Susanne Dunlap.
Click here for Susanne’s interview.
Whenever sleep eluded her, Adélaïde would gaze out the window of the third-floor apartment she shared with her husband and think about colors. She’d stare hardly blinking for hours, noticing all the subtle variations of hue that, to a skilled eye, gave the sky as much movement and character as a living creature. Even as a child, she had understood that nothing was fixed, that light changed whatever it touched. Take the human face: Skin was not one color, but many, and never exactly the same from one moment to the next. She knew, for instance, that if Nicolas ever discovered what she was going to do that day, his face would take on one of the shades of thundercloud that had become more and more familiar to her as they drifted apart, and then she would be obliged to cajole him back to a placid pale pink.
He lay in the bed next to her, sprawled on his back, snoring open-mouthed and dripping saliva on his pillow. With a snort, he rolled away from her, and Adélaïde eased herself out from between the sheets, nudged her toes into her slippers, and stood.
“You’re up early,” Nicolas said, making her jump.
She pulled on her dressing gown as she walked into what served as kitchen and dining area. “I’ll wrap up some bread and cheese for you.”
Nicolas threw off the covers and shook himself from shoulders to toes before whisking his night shirt over his head and dressing for his job as secretary to the clergy. Adélaïde handed him the parcel of food as he strode by on his way out. He turned before leaving and stared at her. “You’ve stopped even making an effort to be attractive. You could at least put your hair up.” He let the door slam behind him and thumped down the stairs.
He’s right, Adélaïde thought. But she didn’t have time to worry about that now. As soon as she heard the heavy outer door of the building open and close, she hurried down to the courtyard, filled a basin of water from the fountain, and brought it up to the apartment so she could bathe. When she was finished, she put on her one good ensemble—the one she wore to church on Sundays with bodice and sleeves that had been trimmed with Mechlin lace in her father’s boutique. Her plan was to leave and come back without anyone noticing before Nicolas returned for dinner.
After waiting for two women who lived below her to finish their conversation in the stairwell, Adélaïde tiptoed out of the house and took a circuitous route to the Rue Neuve Saint-Merri and the Hôtel Jabach so no one might guess where she was going. She passed as swiftly as she could along the crowded thoroughfares with their boutiques and market stalls selling everything from leather goods to live chickens, picking her way around piles of dung and flattening herself against buildings as carriages clattered by. Such strange turns her life had taken, she thought. If she had waited—as her father begged her—until someone more worthy asked for her hand, she might have been the lady she’d just seen pressing a scented handkerchief to her nose as she flew past in a handsome calèche. But at the age of eighteen, her mother dead the year before and all seven of her siblings buried, Adélaïde had been desperate to get away from home, to leave the memories behind and start a new life. Enter the dashing Nicolas Guiard, who courted her passionately and made her feel wanted. Then, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. Now, she realized she’d made a terrible mistake.
It was only ten o’clock when she arrived at the iron gates that opened into the courtyard of the Hôtel Jabach. She stood for several seconds and stared, taking in everything, fixing the image of this moment in her memory. She, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, was about to enter the first exhibition where she would not just be a spectator but a bona-fide, participating artist. Two of her pictures hung in one of the galleries within, her entries in the annual salon of the Académie de Saint-Luc—not the Académie Royale, but nearly as prestigious. Her teachers—François-Élie Vincent and Maurice-Quentin de la Tour—had put her up for membership years ago, before she married, and she would be one of only two women exhibiting that year. It was a bold step, a leap in fact, beyond the trite watercolor miniatures she sold in Monsieur Gallimard’s shop to make a little pocket money. Those were not art.
As she passed through the gates and crossed the courtyard to the entrance, sweat ran down her back under the layers of stays and bodice and petticoats, pooled at her waist, and trickled down her legs into the tops of her wool stockings. She took the printed catalogue the concierge handed her at the door and started fanning herself with it before she even opened it.
The murmur of polite commentary echoed around her. Smartly dressed men and women sauntered in twos and threes, facing the walls and pausing occasionally to admire what caught their eye, then turning to examine the portrait busts and figures that dotted the middle of the floor on pedestals at regular intervals. From her earliest childhood, Adélaïde had been to many exhibitions like this one, in rooms that had been stripped of some of their furnishings and given over to the contemplation of art. She wanted to savor it all and take her time to feast her eyes on everything, to give herself a chance to appreciate the honor of having her own work displayed alongside that of more established artists.
It was in the second of the main galleries that Adélaïde first noticed a small group comprising a slight, dapper man, an older woman who could still be called attractive, and two young ladies of startling beauty. One of them had a face of such exquisite proportions that Adélaïde wished she’d brought a sketch pad and a pencil so she could take her likeness then and there. The other one, although not quite as pretty, exuded sensuality and was clearly aware of the power she had over men in general and the gentleman in their party in particular. She cast her eyes down, her long lashes fluttering against cheeks rosy with what might have been embarrassment if they hadn’t been carefully painted with vermilion stain. That was when Adélaïde overheard the gentleman say, “No, I insist. Your allegories are perfection, Mademoiselle.”
Adélaïde froze. Her allegories? That lady had pictures hanging in the exhibition? The only other female member of the Saint-Luc she knew of was the elderly Mademoiselle Navarre, a pastellist and miniaturist who painted still lifes, not allegories. This lady, whoever she was, must have been elected very recently. No others were on the roster of exhibitors the last time Adélaïde had seen it. She held her breath, willing herself to blend into the crowd, standing sideways to the group and pretending to examine a rather voluptuous rendition of Leda and the Swan. Her ears tingled as she strained to hear the rest of the conversation despite the ebb and flow of casual comments as visitors moved through the gallery.
Click here for Susanne’s interview.
Paris, 1774. After her separation from her abusive husband, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard is at last free to pursue her dream of becoming the premier woman portraitist in Paris. Free, that is, until she discovers at her first public exhibition that another woman artist is poised to claim that role — and she has more training and better connections in the tightly controlled art world.
To have a chance of competing, Adélaïde must first improve her skills in oil painting. But her love affair with her young teacher gives rise to suspicions that he touches up her work, and her decision to make much-needed money by executing erotic pastels threatens to create as many problems as it solves.
As her rival gains lucrative portrait commissions and an appointment as portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette, Adélaïde continues to struggle, until at last she earns a royal appointment of her own, and, in 1789, receives a massive commission from a member of the royal family.
But the timing couldn’t be worse. Adélaïde’s world is turned upside down by political chaos and revolution. With danger around every corner of her beloved Paris, she must find a way to survive and adjust to the new order, starting all over again to carve out a life and a career—and stay alive in the process.
The Portraitist is based on the true story of one woman artist’s fight to take her rightful place in a man’s world — and the decisions she makes that lead her ultimately to the kind of fulfillment she never expected.
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.
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© 2014-2022- Ronovan Hester Copyright reserved. The author asserts his moral and legal rights over this work.