Pastels—dry, satiny colors, manufactured in sticks of every hue—enjoyed a surge in popularity during the eighteenth century, becoming, for a time, the medium of choice for European portraiture.
Unlike oil paints, which required laborious studio procedures, cumbersome equipment, and long sittings and drying times, pastels were portable and allowed speedy execution—the chance, essentially, to “draw” a painting. The pigments could be applied directly with the sticks of colored chalk or wetted into a paste and brushed onto the surface. Using both methods, eighteenth-century pastellists achieved an astonishing range of effects.
Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1739–1741) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The intense hues of pastels, undiluted by oil and undimmed by varnish, came at a price. The powdery medium did not adhere as firmly as oil paint, and the colors sometimes faded when exposed to light. As a result, these works are unusually fragile and must be treated with great care.
Self-Portrait (1735) by Charles-Antoine CoypelThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts while still a teenager, Coypel moved fluidly throughout his career between oil and pastel, his preferred medium for portraits. This sumptuous self-portrait, made for the artist’s brother Philippe, gestures to both modes of production.
The easel at right bears a preparatory drawing for a ceiling decoration to be executed in oils . . .
. . . while the portfolio tucked under the artist’s arm contains blue paper of the kind he used for pastels.
Maurice-Quentin de La Tour
This is the largest pastel produced in the eighteenth century, pieced together from a dozen sheets of paper and completed using a sophisticated combination of wet and dry techniques. La Tour worked exclusively in pastel, creating highly naturalistic portraits designed to rival contemporary oil paintings. Here he portrayed Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1687–1745), a Parisian magistrate and heir to a banking fortune. From the wig powder that dusts de Rieux’s robe to the inkstand, globe, and gilt bronze clock that grace his library, the portrait conveys as much information about its subject through his costume and surroundings as through his face.
The artist Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, like his more illustrious colleague Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, possessed an extraordinary facility with pastels and a gift for convincing likenesses. Lacking La Tour’s connections at the French court, however, Perronneau spent much of his career traveling around France and northern Europe with his pastel kit at the ready. Théophile van Robais (1732–1799), the subject of this portrait, belonged to a wealthy family of textile manufacturers from northern France. The jacket he wears here was probably once bright blue, green, or purple, but exposure to light faded the sensitive pastel pigment long before this portrait arrived at the Getty Museum.
Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory (1793) by John RussellThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Russell was an unusually virtuosic pastellist and the author of several treatises on the medium. He recommended the use of lampblack (a dark pigment made from soot) to produce soft, dense crayons, and he counseled artists to keep a large supply of white pastel on hand. The wisdom of both suggestions is borne out in this portrait of George de Ligne Gregory (1740–1822), the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. The black hat at right forms a striking contrast to the superabundant wig powder that rings its brim and coats the sitter’s shoulders.
Wig powder, a standard element of the eighteenth-century toilette, proved especially well-suited for depiction in pastel.
Portrait of William Burton Conyngham (about 1754–1755) by Anton Raphael MengsThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Anton Raphael Mengs
Trained by his father, a painter at the Dresden court, Mengs practiced both oil painting and pastels. In 1751 he settled in Italy, where he worked primarily as a history painter but continued to produce pastel portraits, often of aristocratic tourists from northern Europe. William Burton Conyngham (1733–1796), an Irish gentleman, made his Grand Tour of continental Europe at age twenty-one and sat for this portrait by Mengs during a stop in Rome. Mengs surrounded Conyngham’s fair hair and frank, ruddy face with a cloud of light . . .
. . . but the red velvet cloak—its sheen captured with streaks of dry pastel—forms this picture’s main attraction.
William and Mary Hoare
The artist known as William Hoare of Bath developed a thriving portraiture practice in the English spa town of that name, producing speedy, faithful likenesses of tourists who came to take the waters there. This portrait depicts William’s cousin Henry II Hoare (1705–1785), “the Magnificent,” a banker and patron of the arts. Henry planted a famous garden at his country house, Stourhead, where numerous works by William and his daughter Mary hung in the eighteenth century.
Lady Dungarvan, Countess of Ailesbury (née Susannah Hoare) (about 1760) by Mary HoareThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Mary Hoare trained as a pastellist with her father, William Hoare of Bath, but married at seventeen and never set up a commercial practice. Perhaps as a result, her few surviving works exhibit a slightly naive approach—evident here in the stiff, doll-like treatment of the sitter’s face. Mary likely made this portrait while still a teenager. It depicts her cousin Susannah (1732–1783), the daughter of Henry II Hoare, “the Magnificent." Susannah had been widowed in 1759 and posed for this pastel in black-trimmed “half-mourning” attire.
A Swiss native, Liotard received his early training as a painter of miniatures but became internationally famous for his pastels. He traveled widely, from Istanbul to Vienna to London to Paris, portraying monarchs, aristocrats, and their children.For this likeness of the Dutch baroness Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone (1748–1807), Liotard varied his application of pastel to evoke the surfaces of her velvet and ermine cape, her soft blond hair, and her rosy cheek. He also lent the little girl a serenity beyond her years: Maria Frederike’s remote gaze contrasts with the brighteyed energy of the lapdog tucked under her arm.
© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
A version of this material was published in 2018 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition "Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits", August 28, 2018–March 10, 2019, at the Getty Center.
Learn more about pastel artworks in this online exhibit "Pastels in Pieces."
To cite these texts, please use: "Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.