Pastel – an art medium in the form of a stick consisting of powdered pigment and a binding agent. This was the primary medium for many artists during the 18th century, although it had been used since the Renaissance era. Yet, if it was so popular, why are paintings from that era in art galleries primarily oil paintings? The answer: pastel paintings do not age well, therefore, they are very fragile.
Unlike oil paints, which take a considerably long time to dry, pastels were a quick way of “drawing” a painting, which appealed to both portrait artists and their sitters. Pastels are also much more portable than oil paints and take little time to set up. They do not necessarily need water and can be applied to dry paper, although some artists prefer to wet the pastels into a paste and apply them to the surface with a paintbrush.
Today, crayon-like oil pastels are sold commercially, however, in the 18th century, they were made without oil and had a higher ratio of pigment to binder. Whilst this meant it was easier to blend the colours, the powdery pigments did not adhere as firmly. As a result, the colours often faded over time when exposed to light, hence why they are less likely to be hung in a public gallery.
Special, low-lit exhibitions of pastel drawings and paintings occasionally take place, such as Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell held at the National Gallery in 2017-18. Not only did Edgar Degas‘ (1834-1917) pastel paintings need to be hung in a darkened room to protect them from light damage, the curators had to be painstakingly gentle when hanging the pieces since the paper Degas had used was extremely thin and prone to tearing. As time goes on, these works will become even more fragile.
We are fortunate to live in the internet age, which during the current pandemic has been vital for many companies and organisations, including art galleries. Online and virtual exhibitions have allowed people to view and galleries to exhibit artworks that would not normally be seen. The John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for instance, has provided an exhibition of Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits, which was briefly shown in the gallery in 2018. Pastels were once the go-to choice for European portrait artists and it is due to extreme care and handling that the following exist today.
Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752)
Charles-Antoine Coypel was a Parisian artist and playwright who became premier peintre du roi (First Painter to the King) in 1722. As well as producing paintings for the Palais de Versaille for Louis XV (1710-74), Coypel received several commissions from the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour (1721-64).
As a teenager, Coypel had been admitted to the Académie Royale, of which he later became the director in 1747. At the academy, Coypel became an expert with oils and pastels, the latter which he preferred to use for portraits. His self-portrait from 1733, is an example of his talents with pastels.
In this self-portrait, Coypel, who was 40 years old, is wearing the traditional academy uniform, which includes a velvet waistcoat and powdered wig. He is gracefully turned towards the viewer and invites them with his open-hand gesture to take a look at his latest work-in-progress. On the easel sits a preparatory drawing for a ceiling design, which will eventually be completed in oils, thus demonstrating that Coypel is competent in more than one medium.
In his other hand, Coypel holds a portfolio of paper upon which is written in French, “Charles Coypel has painted himself for Philippe Coypel, his brother and his best friend, 1734.” Philippe was a valet de chambre to the king, therefore, it is likely Coypel’s portrait would have been hung where it could be viewed by notable Frenchmen. This self-portrait was not just a present but a means of self-promotion. From this single image the viewer learns Coypel is a member of the Académie Royale and can paint with both oils and pastels. Although the self-portrait was produced with pastels, Coypel emphasised his use of the medium by including a silver holder containing pieces of chalk pastel on the table by his side.
Careful examination of Coypel’s pastel drawings reveals he began by producing a faint underdrawing, which he then built up gradually. He used a sharp piece of chalk pastel to produce crisp outlines then switched to soft colours for the remainder of the portrait. His careful application of the colours emphasises the different textures, for instance, the velvet of his waistcoat and the lace edges of his shirt.
Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-88)
Maurice-Quentin de La Tour was a French Roccoco portrait artist who also had connections with Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Unlike Coypel who switched between mediums, La Tour worked primarily in pastels and was one of the most sought-after portraitists of his day.
One of La Tour’s patrons was Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1687-1745), a French baron and magistrate known as the president of Rieux. After being made president of the Chamber of Accounts, de Rieux commissioned La Tour to produce his portrait. Considered to be La Tour’s masterpiece, this 2 by 1.5-metre pastel portrait shows de Rieux in his study dressed in President’s costume.
The objects in the room reveal more about de Rieux than his costume. The study is furnished with several expensive objects, including an ornamental screen, a globe and a Turkish carpet. The velvet-covered table holds books, an inkstand and quill, suggesting de Rieux is a man of intelligence, whilst the other ornaments suggest he is a connoisseur of ornate items. The painting was produced the same year that de Rieux inherited a considerable amount of money from his father, therefore, this portrait was probably a way of demonstrating his wealth.
This pastel painting has survived because it has remained in its gilt frame since it was completed. La Tour used several sheets of paper, which were pieced together and placed over a canvas. Only using pastels, La Tour produced a likeness that rivals oil paintings. Even today, critics are still amazed at the detail and perfection of La Tour’s use of pastel – he even included the wig powder that had dusted de Rieux’s shoulders.
Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715-83)
The French painter Jean-Baptiste Perronneau rivalled La Tour’s skill but was very much in the other artist’s shadow for most of his career. Perronneau started out as an engraver and only began producing portraits in oils and pastels in 1740, by which time La Tour was already an established artist.
Perronneau attempted to show off his skill by submitting a portrait of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour to the Salon of 1750. Rather maliciously, La Tour decided to submit a self-portrait to make Perronneau’s painting appear inferior. Despite Perronneau’s attempts, he died virtually unknown.
Unlike La Tour, Perronneau did not have royal connections and spent his career travelling around France looking for clients. Abraham and Théophile van Robais were two of Perronneau’s more prestigious clients. Abraham (1698-1779), whose portrait belongs to the Musée du Louvre in Paris, was a textile manufacturer; Théophile was likely his son.
The Van Robais family, of Flemish origin, was known for their weaving talents and were encouraged by Louis XIV (1638-1715) to set up the Manufacture des Rames in Abbeville, north France. As a result, the Van Robais family became very wealthy and were able to purchase Château de Bagatelle, which is where they were living when Perronneau painted Abraham and Théophile’s portraits.
This portrait of Théophile van Robais is evidence of the fragility of pastel paintings. Before it was acquired by the John Paul Getty Museum, the portrait had been exposed to light, which had caused irreparable damage. Théophile’s jacket would have either been bright blue, purple or green but has now faded to grey.
John Russell (1745-1806)
John Russell, an Englishman, was renowned for his oil and pastel paintings, earning him the position as Crayon (pastel) Painter to King George III (1738-1820), Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), the Prince of Wales (1762-1830) and Prince Frederick, the Duke of York (1763-1827). Russell showed a talent for art at a young age but initially attempted to have a career as a Methodist preacher. As a result, Russell became acquainted with the leaders of the Methodist movement, John (1703-91) and Charles Wesley (1707-88), both of whom he painted. He also painted the Methodist minister George Whitefield (1714-70) and future abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who was only eleven at the time.
Although Russell took any opportunity to preach, he could not be persuaded to attend the Methodist ministers’ training college. Instead, he enrolled at the Royal Academy school of art in 1770, although was not elected a royal academician until 1788. Between joining the academy and his death, Russell exhibited at least 330 of his works, many of them portraits.
One of Russell’s portraits was of George de Ligne Gregory (1740-1822) who had just been appointed High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. He sat for Russell in a brown wool coat and white cravat with a black hat resting in his hand – typical clothing of a nobleman in the 1790s. The hat and the colour of the coat’s collar allowed Russell to use lampblack, a dark pigment made from soot, which he recommended to artists in his book Elements of Painting with Crayons (1772). He was also in favour of white pastels, which he used for the satin lining of the hat, the cravat and Gregory’s wig. Russell also included the white powder from the wig that had coated the rim of the hat and the coat collar. Rather than making Gregory appear untidy, this emphasised his noble status since wig powder was rather expensive.
Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79)
Anton Raphael Mengs was a German Roccoco painter who was taught to paint by his father Ismael in Dresden. In 1749, Mengs became the first painter to the elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (1695-1763) who later became King Augustus III of Poland. Mengs also accepted two invitations from Charles III of Spain (1716-88) to work on various projects. Mostly, however, Mengs liked to spend time working in Rome, where he converted to Catholicism.
Whilst in Rome, he met the young Irish aristocrat William Burton Conyngham (1733-96) who was on his Grand Tour of continental Europe. Conyngham, who later became an Irish politician, asked Mengs to paint his portrait as a souvenir of his trip. Although Mengs was primarily a history painter, he was also known for his pastel portraits and readily accepted the commission.
Mengs was skilled at achieving rich tones with pastels, which were usually characteristic of oil paintings. He showed off this talent with the luxurious red of the velvet cloak contrasted with the blue of the shirt. Unfortunately, light damage has caused the colours to fade making the cloak seem to be covered in grey soot or dirt.
Conyngham’s choice of attire was to make him appear to be a distinguished gentleman. Mengs, however, accurately depicted his face, emphasising his youth and eagerness. Mengs expertly captured the glint in Conyngham’s eyes and the light reflecting on his nose and lips, which was usually difficult to capture with pastels.
William and Mary Hoare
William Hoare (1707-92) was the leading portraitist in Bath, Somerset – at least until the arrival of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) – and was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy. His daughter Mary (1753-1820) followed in his footsteps, becoming a painter in her own right. Whilst many of Mary’s paintings were of scenes from Shakespeare, her father produced several paintings of social leaders and politicians, such as Prime Ministers Robert Walpole (1676-1745) and William Pitt the Elder (1708-78), and the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).
In 1765, Mary married Henry Hoare, who coincidentally had the same name as her father’s friend Henry Hoare (1705-85); the surname seems to be coincidental. The latter, also known as Henry the Magnificent, was a banker and garden designer who laid the gardens at Stourhead, his estate in Wiltshire – now partly owned by the National Trust. The gardens were admired by many and Hoare was good friends with the renowned landscape gardener Capability Brown (1716-83). Most of Hoare’s wealth came from Hoare’s Bank (now C. Hoare & Co) of which he was a partner for nearly 60 years.
William Hoare was a personal friend of Henry Hoare and painted him in profile, like the Emperors on ancient Roman coins. The richness of the blue jacket emphasises Henry’s wealth and the white wig his importance in society.
A portrait was also produced of Henry Hoare’s daughter Susannah (1732-1783), although there is some discrepancy over the artist. Officially, it is considered to be the work of William Hoare, however, some critics suggest it was produced by Mary during her training as a pastellist. Reason for this is the stiff doll-like face, which was more likely to be the result of a naive teenager’s hand than an established painter like William.
Despite the face, Susannah’s clothing has been expertly drawn, as have her hands, suggesting Mary may have had help from her father. Susanna wears a widow’s cap as she was still in mourning after the death of her first husband, Charles Boyle, Viscount Dungarvan in 1759. Rumours claimed this marriage had been an unhappy one, resulting in only one child. Her second marriage to Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury (1729-1814) was much more fruitful, resulting in five children, four of which reached adulthood.
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-89)
The final artist in the Getty’s online Pastel Portrait exhibition is Jean-Étienne Liotard, a Swiss painter who worked in Geneva, where he was born and died, Rome, Istanbul, Paris, Vienna and London. On his travels, Liotard had the opportunity to produce several pastel portraits of notable figures, including Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (1719-72), Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-51) and Marie Antoinette (1755-93) before her marriage to Louis XVI (1754-93).
Despite going on to paint such famous people, Liotard’s most notable pastel portrait is of seven-year-old Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone (1748-1807), the daughter of an aristocratic Dutch family. Liotard captured her youthful complexion and beauty but also made her appear wiser beyond her years. This is in part due to her thoughtful expression and the quality of the bright-blue velvet and ermine cape. Her peaceful gaze contrasts with the alert, bright-eyed lapdog under her arm.
This portrait has been carefully preserved, allowing us to see the subtle gradations of colour that Liotard used to depict texture, light and shadow. Liotard was a skilled oil painter but preferred using pastels for portraits, particularly of children, because they could be produced with greater speed, meaning the sitter did not need to stay still for too long. Nonetheless, the quality Liotard achieved with pastels equalled that of an oil painting.
It is a great shame these works of art cannot be seen in galleries more often due to their fragility. Looking at them online is one solution, however, we lose the texture of the painting and the graininess of the chalky pigment. Although gallery curators dedicate their time to opening exhibitions of pastel work, it is impossible to do this without at least a tiny bit of damage. As time goes on, the fragility of these artworks will increase, meaning they will be displayed less and less until the risk of damage is too high, after which they will never be seen again.
Next time an art gallery puts on an exhibition of pastel works, make the effort to visit. It could be the last opportunity to see some of the works before they are retired to a dark cupboard, never again to be seen in public.
Source of some info and images: “Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits,” published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.