A number of years ago a well-known and influential New York art gallerist was brought to my studio by a private dealer I’d been working with. The visit was tense: I’d been working on a new body of large paintings and yet the gallerist was clearly not engaging in the work (or in the conversation). Later that day, I met up with the dealer for coffee to discuss the visit – he’d been trying to help me find a gallery to represent my work and had hoped that this particular gallerist might be a good match. He apologized, saying that the gallerist wasn’t interested in my work. He also recounted something the gallerist had said to him: “In general,” the gallerist had said, “I don’t get painting.”
That sentence has stuck with me ever since. How could it be that an extremely powerful, influential, and – it is assumed – knowledgeable art world “player” was categorically dismissing painting? The fact that his gallery stable reflected that – it didn’t (and still doesn’t) contain many artists making paintings – didn’t ease the sting. Neither did the fact that his stable of artists was a group whose work I respected and admired. In fact, maybe that last fact made it sting even more.
So why – of all things – did I start thinking about this statement when I was asked to write about painting? Why is my knee-jerk reaction to automatically defend painting? Not just to defend it, but to defend it here, in an arena whose purpose is to celebrate painting? Certainly part of it is my own self-doubt, but it’s also the subtle yet ever-present sentiment that we painters are still bumping up against: the idea that painting is never as topical, current, and imbued with content as newer – “edgier”, “groundbreaking” – mediums are.
One of the mantras I use to quell that inner voice is something that Joan Waltemath said as part of a panel discussion on painting in the mid-2000s. Joan was the first on the panel to speak and, with nary an introductory remark, coolly and self-assuredly began: “It’s a mistake to defend painting.” Continuing in her calm, authoritative, and elegant manner, she quickly came to her point. I’m going to have to paraphrase here, but it was something along the lines of, “Shut up world, the questioning of painting’s relevance should never have happened in the first place, so let’s get on with it.”
The modus operandi of much of my own artwork – and my personality – is the acknowledgment of doubt and defensiveness, in the hope that the acknowledgement of my own weakness will lead me to a place of chagrined acceptance. Maybe it can even lead me to a place of truth: the fact that painting, at the very least for me, is endlessly meaningful, limitlessly inventive, and absolutely and completely visually compelling. Or, I should say, painting has the potential for being all these things.
Just as there are films that I return to again and again – bringing a childlike satisfaction in the comfort of familiar stories, characters, and scenarios – there are paintings that I come back to over and over for the same reason. For many years one of my touchstones has been Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s 1785 painting, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788), which for many years hung in the room at the top of the main staircase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (an unavoidable location that only added to its power).
With fastidious, Neo-Classical technical skill (and yes we can argue about the pros and cons of hyper-rendering an image, but that’s a whole other conversation) Labille-Guiard depicts herself painting wearing a blue satin dress with stunningly well-depicted texture. The painting uses a classic triangular composition, with the figure of Labille-Guiard and her students creating a central pyramid-like form. Stretcher bars, maul sticks, and other objects act as diagonals that constantly loop our gaze back to the central figure. Although there is minimal background imagery, we do see a couple of plaster casts of classical statuary – one looks to be a copy of a roman bust. The statue seems to be gazing at the artist. Is it showing concern? Amusement? Disgruntlement? In any case it’s a funny aside on Labille-Guiard’s part.
The most impressive aspect of this painting for both the little-kid me and the grown-up me is that Labille-Guiard depicts herself working, with two female students watching over her shoulder. I get teary eyed every time I see it – the relaxed confidence and gentle smile with which Labille-Guiard has depicted herself. Maybe she taught only female students, and maybe that’s the reason she’s chosen to depict herself with the two young women here, but it’s nonetheless stunning to see an image of a female artist as teacher to female students. I began to notice this painting on early visits to the Met with my mother – I must have been 11 or so, at just about the time she gave me a compilation book of reprints of early Wonder Woman comics (with an introductory essay by Gloria Steinem!). The two women – one an 18th-century French painter, the other a 20th-century superhero – have always been linked in my mind and from that time on, Labille-Guiard has been a kind of Wonder Woman to me.
An entire symposium could be held on the meaning of this painting. Indeed, the Metropolitan’s wall text for it asserts that it “…has been interpreted as a propaganda piece, arguing for the place of women in the academy.” Although my writing here is about my own response to the painting – and not the art historical interpretation of it – I’m all for the interpretation of this painting, with its stunning technique and glorious, beautiful, and charming imagery, as a propaganda tool for women’s inclusion in the academy (“anything you can do, I can do better”, indeed). Not to mention the fact that Labille-Guiard painted numerous portraits of French royalty, yet was sympathetic to the French Revolution (or so says the wall text). But, for me, the painting is the work of an individual reveling in her role as a skilled, highly regarded professional, who could both make knock-out artwork and serve as a mentor to other women. Even as an 11-year-old girl I was onto this and it impressed me indelibly.
Most of my artistic output as an adult (and, come to think of it, much of it as a kid as well) deals with the continuous visual narrative of the so-called perfect life that the contemporary (and omnipresent) media culture constantly presents to us. I’ve been struck by the fact that contemporary advertising seems to know more about the kind of visual language Labille-Guiard utilized (and for that matter, Johannes Vermeer and other golden age Dutch painters) than they know about contemporary painting. One of my recent paintings depicts a zoomed-in section of a pink satin dress, worn by the actress Nicole Kidman, from an ad for luxury watches. The painting doesn’t actually include an image of Kidman, but focuses on the beauty of the satin fabric in the photo, rendered now by me with oil paint in as faithful a reproduction of it as I can manage. My intention is to bring the whole thing full circle by bringing the image back to painting. (Hopefully the underlying pathos I feel in undertaking this endeavor makes its presence felt in the piece.) Advertising – and not painting – is the contemporary arbiter of what is beautiful (a point made eloquently by Elaine Scarry in her 1997 book On Beauty) which is a bone-chilling thought. But, as problematic as it is, it also eggs me on, making me want to throw as many punches as I can. Maybe while wearing blue satin and holding a palette, brushes and a maul stick.
At the time of writing this essay, (fall 2015) Self-Portrait with Two Pupils is on loan to the Grand Palais in Paris, as part of an exhibition of the work of one of Labille-Guiard’s few female classmates, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
For many years Self-portrait with Two Pupils hung in the Metropolitan’s European Paintings 600 room, the painting Young Woman Drawing (1801) by Marie Denise Villiers hung directly opposite. The wall text for that painting asserts that it’s now thought possibly to be a self-portrait as well. For me, the Villiers always acted as a “daughter” painting to the Labille-Guiard: somewhat more modest in size and ambition, but with a tremendous quiet and presence. In addition, its position in the same gallery confirmed to me the importance of the Labille-Guiard. And, while Villers is not one of the pupils depicted in Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait, my own interior narrative of super-heroine passing on the baton to her protege suggest she is.
In the end, though, in my own mind, the companion painting to Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait is Philip Guston’s Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973), already written about in this publication by Brenda Goodman. For me it’s an equally impressive and meaningful self-portrait, but also lives in a sort of “paradox world” (to borrow a term from Seinfeld) when compared to the Labille-Guiard. Guston’s painting is lumpen, ugly, funny, full of pathos, and as full of doubt as Labille-Guiard’s is full of confidence (and bravura painting technique) but is equally as chock full of information about the artist and their position in the world.
Julia Jacquette is a painter who was raised and lives in New York City. Her upcoming solo exhibition, Unrequited and Acts of Play, will be at the Wellin Museum on the campus of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, NJ. www.juliajacquette.net