The Portraitist [Book Review]

In The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap, Adélaïde is forced to make her way in a man’s profession and break barriers.

The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap

The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap (cover) Image: a 1700s woman dressed in a fancy gown and a wide brimmed hat with ribbon holds an easel and paintbrush

Genre/Categories/Setting: Historical Fiction, Art, France, French Revolution

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My Summary of The Portraitist:

Thanks @SheWritesPress for a complimentary e ARC of #ThePortraitist upon my request. All opinions are my own.

Susanne Dunlap writes the highly imagined story of a real-life artist, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and her career aspirations. It is the 1700s and Adélaïde does not enjoy a life of privilege. She is forced to find ways to fund her own training and acquire her own tools. Some of these ways are controversial for the times. To complicate her life, the affair she has with her young instructor causes some to speculate that he touches up her work. As she finally achieves success and earns a royal appointment, the fall of the Bastille in 1789 threatens her career.

Self Portrait of Artist, Adelaide Labille Guiard

Self Portrait (Image source)

My Thoughts:

Despite many obstacles and setbacks, she persists.

The Premise:

I enjoy a story about pursuing your passion, following your dreams, and themes of determination and perseverance. This is an interesting story about a woman who is forced to make her way in a man’s profession and break barriers.

Adélaïde’s Contributions:

It’s interesting to learn what Adélaïde contributes to art during her lifetime. She paints forward-facing women making direct eye contact with viewers. In addition, her necklines are a touch lower than what is traditional. One of her paintings includes a subtle message about allowing more women to become students. Not many women artists were given opportunities to learn under master teachers. So one painting shows two women students watching her instruction….a message that boldly promotes the idea of more women students.

Adélaïde’s Father:

I love the daughter/father relationship in this story. Adélaïde’s father supports and promotes his daughter and her art in any way he can.

The Genre:

Although I love the histfic genre, I know that some readers prefer to read an actual biography. I don’t mind the made up diologue or the slight rearranging of events and a composite of characters to fit the storyline. However in her author notes, Susanne Dunlap admits to fabricating some of the events in Adélaïde’s life such as having her paint erotica (of the time) to support herself and being the victim of domestic abuse. The fabrications that Dunlap includes changes my reading experience and my impressions of Adélaïde. This causes me to wonder if these liberties taken by the author lead to a more feminist portrait of the artist than might have been factual. I can understand that many historical details of the artist’s life are not available; however, made up events cause me concern.

A Recommendation:

Even though Adélaïde is not an especially likable character and some historical events are invented, This compelling story is recommended for readers who appreciate art and art history, for fans of self-made women of the 1700s, and for histfic fans.

If you are looking for more recommendations of strong women in history, you might want to check out my Book Club Recommendations page (histfic section) here.

Content Considerations: sexual content, domestic abuse

My Rating:  4 Stars


The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap (cover) Image: a 1700s woman dressed in a fancy gown and wide brimmed hat with ribbon poses with her easel and paintbrush

More Information Here

Meet the Author of The Portraitist, Susanne Dunlap

Author of The Portraitist Susanne DunlapHistory is my muse. I love writing, dogs, cycling, and writing. Did I say writing already?

I’m fascinated by the women of the past, how they lived, how they negotiated with the conditions of their time to thrive as best they could.

I’ve written about real historical women and invented characters who might have lived then.


Is this histfic title on your TBR or have you read it?

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  1. I do enjoy histfic genre very much. I think I like a fictionalized version of a story than the real one! LOL. This sounds wonderful.

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