Only very recently a rather beautiful exhibit closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. A friend visited it and was able to confirm that this small exhibit ( not one of their blockbusters, you understand, but one of the many small exhibitions they run, year on year) was tiny but very sumptuous. Sadly ( Oh! How sadly!)I couldn’t make it to New York to see it myself, but was pleased to note that the Museum, in association with Yale Publishing have produced a small but beautiful book/catalogue of the exhibit, and that is what I am reviewing here.
Pastel portraits are wonderful things. I have for a long time loved this portrait in pastels of George III as a young man commissioned from jean Etienne Liotard by George’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales. This is still in the Royal Collection, and is simply a breathtaking piece of work:
And this sumptuous portrait of Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera, below, executed while he was on his Grand Tour was a highlight for me of the recent Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
During the 18th century, technological advances ment that for a short time, fashionable Europe became enamoured of these portraits. As Marjorie Shelly writes in the book:
The innovations that spurred the rising popularity of pastel were products of the Enlightenment, an era that held great respect for the manufacturing trades and crafts and had faith in the practical application of science and the arts to advance commerce and industry…In the spirit of fostering progress and the commercial advantages resulting from it, makers of crayons, paper and fixatives experimented with increasingly softer pastels, more tenacious supports and invisible nondarkening coatings…Practical infomration poured forth as well from encyclopaedias, dictionaries, journals and manuals on the artisanal aspects of pastel..the appeal of pastel was also one of economics and convenience. For artists crayon portraiture was a lucrative business that could compete in the same market place as oil painting. George Vertue, the engraver whose notebooks were the basis for Horace Walpole’s”Anecdotes of Panting in England”observed, for most practitioners pastels were “much easier in the execution than Oil colours” as the costs were lower and the handling more rapid.
And of course one of the most appealing aspects of pastel portraiture, as I do hope you can see by close examination of the portraits reproduced here ( if you click on them they will enlarge for you), was that these paintings in dry colour were able, better than any other medium, to portray their subjects skin and its texture. They could convey an idea of its bloom, that most desirable aspect of a person and especially a woman’s beauty, which defined her appeal to the 18th century eye.
As we know from Persuasion and the story of Anne Elliot and the early loss of her bloom, losing that sheen of youth from her skin had a devastating effect on her appeal and reflected her extreme depression:
A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne’s share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect.
That devastating moment when she realised Wentworth thought her altered beyond recognition, is hard to bear, for both Anne and we readers:
“Altered beyond his knowledge!” Anne fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification. Doubtless it was so, and she could take no revenge, for he was not altered, or not for the worse. She had already acknowledged it to herself, and she could not think differently, let him think of her as he would. No: the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth.
Luckily, happiness, the sea air at Lyme and escaping the confines of Kellynch brings back her bloom ( and not, do note is any of this due to the effects of applying Gowlands Lotion!) and with it, Wentworth’s admiration:
When they came to the steps leading upwards from the beach, a gentleman, at the same moment preparing to come down, politely drew back, and stopped to give them way. They ascended and passed him; and as they passed, Anne’s face caught his eye, and he looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration which she could not be insensible of. She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animations of eye which it had also produced. It was evident that the gentleman (completely a gentleman in manner) admired her exceedingly. Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it. He gave her a momentary glance, a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, “That man is struck with you, and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.”
The portraits produced did have some important drawbacks. They could not be permanently displayed, for constant exposure to light ruined them, and they had to be protected from the elements, dust and enquiring fingers by a sheet of glass. They could not be moved much either as vibration caused the pastel particles to detach from the paper surface, thus ruining the whole effect. These drawbacks meant that the fashion for pastel portraits began to wane during the 1770s.
By the late 1790s watercolour and conte crayon were being promoted by the art and philosophical societies and pastel had become “a style now quite unfashionable” Not until the 1870s would the medium be reintroduced in its full glory by the Impressionists.
However, some unfashionable souls still commissioned pastel portraits, and the catalogue includes quite a few from the dates 1790-1810. This portrait of the sculptor Antonio Canova ( 1790) by Hugh Douglas Hamilton is a fine example,
And this delightful work by John Russell of Mrs Robert Shurlock and her daughter Ann, dating from 1801, reminds me forcibly of Isabella Knightley and Little Bella.
This fascinating but small book is illustrated with 50 full colour pictures of the pastels in the exhibition, and among the artists whose work is inluded are not only Liotard and Carriera but also such luminaries as John Singleton Copley, Chardin, and Elizabeth Louise Vigee le Brun. The text provides a very full description of the manufacturing process of pastels, the history of teh craze for these crayons , how the crayons were used and applied. Each illustration has catalogue notes of some detail(enough even to satisfy me) The book is available at a very reasonable price(see here from the publisher’s website). I can throughly recommend it, and hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.