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Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite
Women in eighteenth-century Paris were subjected to a level of discrimination we’d never accept in the twenty-first century. Adelaide Labille-Guiard was no exception. She married young, but her passion wasn’t her husband; it was rather her painting. This created a volatile relationship, one that she had to escape to nurture her passion for art. Divorce was unheard of in this era, but at least the two managed to separate. It didn’t ease the burden of trying to gain acceptance into the art world in an era where women would never be viewed as equal to men. And, when she did manage to secure prominent commissions from the royal patrons, her world turned upside down yet again with the beginning of the French Revolution, the abolishment of royalty, and the subjugation of anyone once associated with French royalty. It was a difficult life, but Adelaide became a beacon of hope for other female artists and her work stands the test of time as a fine miniaturist and portraitist.
Susanne Dunlap’s novel, The Portraitist: A Novel of Adelaide Labille-Guiard, is a passionate look at a difficult era and a strong woman of great talent who fought to be recognized for her art and not her gender. The plot follows Adelaide’s artistic journey, beginning with the unsettled and difficult marriage that threatened both her life and her ability to do what she loved most: paint. The author sets the stage beautifully, describing Adelaide’s waking hours as she ponders the beautiful, ever-changing colors of the world around her. Dunlap’s ability to make the written word as beautiful as the art featured in the story is something that requires great skill and admiration of the fine arts. In the style of other historical fiction authors who focused on artistic greats, like Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy and Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (and many others), Dunlap’s novel about a female artist of the eighteenth century is exemplary, educational, and engaging. Well done!