Exhibition Review

Pastel Portraits: Images of Eighteenth Century Europe

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 May 2011 – 14 August 2011

Reviewed by John Weretka

Fig. 5. John Russell (English, 1745–1806) John Collins of Devizes, 1799

The eighteenth-century pastel portrait is the subject of a compact show of about forty images from 1711–1801 being hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (17 May 17–18 August 2011).  Too often derided as a minor art, placing it on a level with other domestic entertainments such as the silhouette, pastel is revealed in this show as a highly nuanced, delicate and beautiful art form that in a sense has suffered by being too closely allied to the tastes of its own time.  In fact, as the inclusion of pastels by artists working elsewhere in oils shows, pastel was a worthy subject of attention for artists who would otherwise make themselves known in ‘higher art’ media.  Accordingly, the pastels of François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jean Siméon Chardin, Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, Anton Raphael Mengs and Thomas Gainsborough, probably better known for their oils, are presented with works by artists including Rosalba Carriera and Jean Baptiste Perroneau, known largely or exclusively for their work in pastels.  Some artists, like Joseph Wright of Derby (Fig. 1), known to me only in one medium (such as the oil paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria), are here revealed as accomplished pastellists.  The show does an excellent job of demonstrating the chronological span of the heyday of the pastel, as well as its geographical reach and embrace of the important work of female artists in the field.  The works shown encompass Italians working in Italy (Benedetto Luti) (Fig. 2) and outside it (Rosalba Carriera), Swiss (one of Liotard’s Turkish scenes), Germans (Mengs), French (both ancien régime and post-Revolutionary), English (Gainsborough, John Russell, Daniel Gardner) and American (John Copley).

The exhibition catalogue contains a lengthy section dedicated to the production of a pastel, including discussion of the way in which the various characteristic finishes of a pastel were obtained.  The vibrant blush of Perroneau’s portait of Olivier Journu (1756) (Fig. 3), competing with the luscious sensualism of a Largillière, for example, is contrasted with the patchy sketchiness of Greuze’s portraits of Head of a young woman wearing a bonnet facing to left (c.1765) and Baptist ainé (c.1790) or Gainsborough’s portrait of Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough (c.1765-88), verging on drawing.  Hugh Hamilton’s partly finished pastel of Antonio Canova (c.1790) and Maurice Quentin de la Tour’s préparations for a portrait of the Abbé Reynal (c.1750-55) and for a portrait of Mademoiselle Dangeville (c.1750) remind us that pastels were often conceived as off-the-cuff reminiscences of individual moments, their expression as fragile as the material from which they were made, while Mengs’ superbly modulated and highly finished Pleasure (c.1754) shows that, at their best, they could also compete with oil painting.  The sizes of the pastels on show also reveal their different pretensions, ranging from the intimate portrait (such as Carriera’s exquisite Young woman with pearl earrings, at a petite 32x27cm, (Fig. 4)) to the large portrait, sometimes out of proportion to its subject (John Russell’s portrait of Wiltshire worthy John Collins with his ram of 1799, at 76.2×64.1cm (Fig. 5)).  The subjects range from those verging on genre (Liotard’s Young woman in Turkish costume playing the tambourine, c.1740 or Charles Antoine Coypel’s A nobleman as Daphnis, c.1738), to images of the nascent middle classes (Marie Gabrielle Capet’s Jean Pierre Demetz, 1800-01), minor nobility (Perroneau’s Portrait of a man, 1756, presumed to be the Monsieur de Beauséjour) and even royalty (De La Tour’s préparation for a portrait of Louis XV, c.1745, here shown without its later accretions; or Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s portraits of Madame Elisabeth de France, c.1787).  Fellow artists and musicians also offer subjects (De la Tour’s portrait of Jacques Dumont le Romain playing the guitar c.1742 (Fig. 6) and Jean Marc Nattier’s portrait of Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer, c.1750 (Fig. 7)).  Whatever the subject, the sheer tactile immediacy of the medium lends these pastel portraits a liveliness that ensures that their subjects are of profound human interest.

Room texts and subsidiary displays are very much at a minimum in this show, making perusing the admirable catalogue, a reprint of the Metropolitan Art Bulletin authored by Katherine Baetjer and Marjorie Shelley, a must before visiting it.  The catalogue contains a single long essay that deals with pastel from various angles – facture, technique, the problems eighteenth-century artists encountered in trying to render these eminently destructible images more permanent.  Prominence is given to the extremely important role the nascent Industrial Revolution played in the history of the pastel, particularly in the manufacture of the crayons used.  Relatively little exposure is given to the place of pastel in the wider artistic hierarchy, the decline of the pastel, or, somewhat inexplicably, to the incredible significance of female artists in this genre, with the issues of gendering that inevitably arise.

© John Weretka 2011

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[NB Click on the thumbnails to view larger versions. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the link to the MAN website to view the show properly]

Fig. 1. Joseph Wright (English, 1734–1797)
Study Head of a Woman, ca. 1770
Grisaille pastel on blue laid paper; 15 7/8 x 11 in. (40.3 x 28 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 2007 (2007.40)

Fig. 2 Benedetto Luti (Italian, 1666–1724)
Study of a Boy in a Blue Jacket, 1717
Pastel and chalk on blue laid paper, laid down on paste paper; 16 x 13 in. (40.6 x 33 cm)
Signed and dated (on the backing): Roma 1717 / Il Caual[iere] / Benedetto Luti fece.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gwynne Andrews Fund, 2007 (2007.360)

Fig. 3 Jean Baptiste Perronneau (French, 1715–1783)
Olivier Journu (1724–1764), 1756
Pastel on blue-gray laid paper, laid down on canvas; 22 7/8 x 18 1/2 in. (58.1 x 47 cm)
Signed and dated (upper right, in graphite): Perronneau / 1756
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Wrightsman Fund, 2003 (2003.26)

Fig. 4 Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1673–1757)
Young Woman with Pearl Earrings, ca. 1720
Pastel on paper; 12 5/8 x 10 5/8 in. (32 x 27 cm)
Private collection

Fig. 5. John Russell (English, 1745–1806)
John Collins of Devizes, 1799
Pastel on paper; 30 x 25 1/4 in. (76.2 x 64.1 cm)
Signed and dated (at lower right, in red crayon): J. Russell RA / pinxit 1799
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.6261)

Fig. 6. Maurice Quentin de La Tour (French, 1704–1788)
Jacques Dumont le Romain (1701–1781) Playing the Guitar, ca. 1742
Pastel on paper; 25 1/2 x 21 3/4 in. (64.8 x 55.2 cm)
Private collection

Fig. 7. Jean Marc Nattier (French, 1685–1766)
Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer, ca. 1750
Pastel on paper, two sheets joined, laid down on canvas, 31 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (80.6 x 64.1 cm)
Private collection