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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portrait

Pastel differs from natural chalks of different colors which have long been used in drawing (51.90). It is made by mixing powdered pigments with a binder (usually gum arabic), shaping this mixture into sticks, and leaving it to dry. These crayons or sticks of pigment are very crumbly and their colored powder adheres only loosely to paper, which was often roughened in advance to create a surface for the material to cling to. Works in pastel are thus fragile, as movement can loosen the powder.

Although the earliest works of art to make use of pastel were produced in Renaissance Italy, pastel painting proper dates from the seventeenth century. In the Renaissance, pastel was used sparingly, adding highlight or color to drawings usually executed in natural chalks. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pastel was more widely used; no longer restricted to finishing touches, it was employed more liberally by French artists such as Robert Nanteuil (1623–1678) and over larger areas. By the eighteenth century, color, not line, became dominant as pastels moved aesthetically closer to painting. The status of pastel had long been debated: in 1684, Roger de Piles (1635–1709) described it as a type of painting, though one lacking the vitality of paintings in oil; in 1690, André Félibien (1619–1695) described pastel as a mode of drawing that had the same effect as painting, but which could not be classed as painting. The eighteenth century, however, proved a turning point for pastel, as Joseph Vivien (1657–1734) became the first artist to be received in the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1701 as a “painter in pastel.”

Yet for all the monumental scale of Vivien’s lifesize pastel portraits, pastel was still associated with preparatory work. The earliest finished pastels in Italy were made by Benedetto Luti (1666–1724), who painted study heads and portraits in the medium (2007.360; 2007.361). His highly colored works were much admired by and given as gifts to his patrons, though it was predominantly as a dealer and as a painter of oils and frescoes that Luti found his fame. The first artist to be truly internationally renowned for and defined by her pastels was Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757), a Venetian portraitist who, although she corresponded with Luti, was largely self-taught. Her pastels are noted for their radiant palettes, lustrous velvety tones, and miniaturist’s detail (2002.22); she had begun her career painting portrait miniatures, then considered an appropriate genre for women. Her later portraits were painted solely in pastel, never in oil. They were commissioned and collected by princes and courts across Europe, and particularly by Grand Tourists visiting Venice from Germany, France, and England. Carriera’s pastels, which are larger than Luti’s, were explicitly intended for hung display in close proximity to, and in competition with, conventional oil portraits.

Pastels have always been praised for the freshness of their colors, at once both brilliant and subtle (2005.231). Although we now recognize their fragility, in the eighteenth century pastels were often thought more durable than oils, as these vibrant colors were less susceptible to damage by light (oils often faded or yellowed with age). Pastel, too, afforded the artist a richer interplay between medium and support than oils did. Pastel paintings were commonly executed on blue paper mounted on canvas, not only because this was the thickest paper available in the eighteenth century, but also because of the chromatic advantages it offered as the pigments of the pastel picked up and interacted with the blue background. Lively pastel studies for finished portraits (2005.66) were almost unique to Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788), perhaps the eighteenth century’s most feted pastelist, but they offer an invaluable insight into how such tonal complexity was worked up. Unlike oils, which can be mixed on a palette from nine or ten basic pigments, each tone requires a different stick of pastel, with artists making use of hundreds of crayons.

However, La Tour’s portraits cannot be discussed without acknowledging the oeuvre of Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715–1783). It is really these two exceptional figures at mid-century who mark the golden age of pastel portraiture in France, arguably in Europe. La Tour was fortunate to see Carriera’s work during her time in the French capital between 1720 and 1721, and, exclusively a pastellist, is seen as the direct inheritor of her tradition. Perronneau, by contrast, trained in Paris as a portraitist in oil before executing portraits in pastel and, with the older La Tour dominant in court and Salon circles, spent much of his life producing portraits in the provinces. The rivalry between these two masters is often summed up in the challenge La Tour gave Perronneau in 1750: that each should paint a pastel portrait of the other to show at the Salon. While Perronneau really did paint a portrait of La Tour, La Tour produced a self-portrait, making a mockery of his fellow artist. La Tour was unrivalled in painting the textures of fabrics and faces, making much use of his favorite blue (2002.439); Perronneau was acknowledged a superior colorist, achieving in his pastels the most extraordinary harmonies of color (2003.26). The highlights visible in the work of both artists mark a formal trend in pastel portraiture that dates from around 1753, when both La Tour and Perronneau began to leave certain colors unblended. These portraits were, it was said, intended to be seen at a distance, so that they looked most lifelike from across a room. The praise awarded to La Tour by Pierre Jean Mariette (1694–1774) in 1745 seems to stand for both artists: their work marks “the triumph of painting in pastel.”

Almost 2,500 artists and amateurs were said to be working in pastel in mid-century Paris; the Abbé de Saint-Non, an amateur who moved in artistic circles, was just one of them (1977.383). However, this unprecedented craze for pastel portraiture was not restricted to the continent: in England, too, “crayon painting” had captured the public imagination. John Russell (1745–1806) was the most prolific pastelist in eighteenth-century Britain. Having studied under the pastelist Francis Cotes (1726–1770), Russell produced a treatise, Elements of Painting with Crayons, in 1772 and was appointed “Crayon Painter to the Prince of Wales” in 1785. He too was greatly influenced by Carriera’s pastels and owned several works by her. Unlike the visible highlights of La Tour and Perronneau, Russell derived from Carriera a sfumato technique of “sweetening” or stumping his colors: using either his finger or a stump (a rolled-up piece of paper or cloth), he blended his pastels together to obtain a wide range of hues and tones. Amazingly, he appears to have made use of only fourteen pigments, which he blended on steel blue paper prepared with an even deeper blue ground. Although graced with royal patronage and able to command prices as steep as those of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), the majority of Russell’s portraits were executed for the wealthy middle classes, often in commemoration of marriage or children (61.182.1; 61.182.2; 67.132).

A survey of the greatest eighteenth-century pastelists risks ignoring those artists for whom pastel was not a primary medium, as well as those who put it to less conventional use. In England, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) is one such example (2007.40); in France, there is Jean Pillement (1728–1808), highly unusual in producing decorative paintings and landscapes in pastel (56.7). Such a survey must also acknowledge those practitioners on the extreme periphery of the European art world. John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) was raised in Boston with no artistic training beyond that gleaned from study prints, instruction manuals, and his engraver stepfather. His first pastels were produced never having seen another work in the medium; they attest to the far-flung celebrity and particular appeal of pastel painting in the eighteenth century.