Enlightenment on Fifth Avenue

An review of Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-Century Europe at the Metropolitan Museum

In the second floor hallway of the Metropolitan Museum, the opening wall text of Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-Century Europe describes the physical components of pastel and concludes with the phrase “this little understood medium.” Juxtaposed on the adjacent wall are over-life-sized photographs of the pastel-making process. These gripping introductions to the Metropolitan Museum’s first pastel exhibit promise a thorough artistic inquiry that, as a pastelist, I have craved. The comprehensive history it reveals and the quality of the paintings it presents heightens my infatuation with the medium I embraced the moment I touched it.

Enlightenment on Fifth Avenue
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Jean Charles Garnier d’Isle, ca. 1750. Pastel and gouache on blue paper, laid down on canvas, 253⁄8 x 211⁄4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Walter and Leonore Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation Gift, 2002.

Just past the wall text and photographs, in three intimate, low-lit galleries, visitors glimpse a view into the Enlightenment Age of eighteenth-century Europe. I do not recall ever having had the joy of walking through three galleries of pastel paintings. What bliss, to be surrounded by these forty-four portraits in pastel, installed on walls of hushed gray and blue. One revels in the edifying wall texts and the display case of well-worn pastel painters’ tools and instructional booklets. Marjorie Shelley, the Metropolitan Museum’s Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, Paper Conservation Department, co-curated the exhibit with Katharine Baetjer, curator, European Paintings, with meticulous and sensitive scholarship. The exhibition catalog is a gold mine of insights and historical cross-referencing.

In these paintings, most of which are Italian, French, and English, we observe how very adaptable pastel is to an artist’s temperament and intentions, despite its fragility. We see pastel blended, or “sweetened,” by Francis Cotes’ finger or torchillon (paper stump), and the decidedly unsweet, expressive strokes of Chardin. We see dramatic lashes of color by the hand of Jean-Baptist Greuze. Anton Raphael Mengs’ color and value shifts are so subtle that the pastel appears to have been breathed onto his paper. Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera, the most influential woman artist of the era (and many say in all of art history), is represented by two portraits. The first, Gustavus Hamilton (1730–31), purchased by the Met in 2002, was the catalyst for this exhibit. Carriera combines smooth masses in the coat and hat and tiny calligraphic marks to suggest the lace.

My imagination is lit: I envision Carriera stepping back to arm’s length from her easel, sweeping her blue soft pastel into the coat, stepping a little closer with a lighter color to glaze the folds of fabric on top of the blue, and then stepping all the way forward, a sharpened pastel in hand, to painstakingly shape the lace with quick movements of her wrist. Her Young Woman with Pearl Earrings (1720) is a thickly-layered interplay of pastel and gouache. The Swiss Jean-Étienne Liotard eschewed any signs of the artist’s hand. He ground his pastel sticks and wetted the powder with water to eliminate pastel’s innate dry, crumbly texture. He experimented with fixatives. His manipulation of pastel foreshadows that of Degas. The differences in their intentions, however, are striking. Liotard’s priority was to “fool the eye” that it was seeing real form and space rather than an artist’s transcription of reality. Degas’ hand is seen in every stroke.

Enlightenment on Fifth Avenue
Jean-Marc Nattier, Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (Louise Geneviève Le Blond), ca. 1750. Pastel on paper, two sheets joined, laid down on canvas, 31 3⁄4 x 25 1⁄4 in. Private collection.

Beyond their distinction as pastel works, these paintings are themselves outstanding portraits. I have some favorites. Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s Jean Charles Garnier D’Isle (ca. 1750), tells of a weight, both in solid physiognomy and confident engagement with the viewer. In Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s Nicholas Perchet (1795) the sitter’s chiseled features are emphasized by strong light, and contrast with the exceptionally delicate coloration of the flesh. The closely cropped composition in no way stil es the airy space into which the hair and ribbon freely float. The entire expression suggests a man of kind temper. In Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough (ca.1765–8), Thomas Gainsborough uses barely any color in the face of his sitter in his evocation of her thoughtful and non-theatrical presence. In Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (1750), Jean Marc Nattier, who rarely worked in pastel, pays exquisite attention to the elaborate textures and bold colors of the fabric. The design of the painting is stunning and the ambiguous narrative summons our curiosity. Despite the dress’s intense blue color, the pale face holds our attention most. Madame, whose name was Louise Genevieve, looks out beyond the frills, over the mask, over the intriguing glove with its open fingertips, her quiet and steady gaze suggesting an inner life, a self-possession far larger than the flash of costume. These are all, of course, equal characters in the portrait, and the artist masterfully choreographs them. Ireland’s Hugh Douglas Hamilton portrays his friend, sculptor Antonio Canova, in as stately and elegant a profile as a frieze the sitter might have sculpted. He remains warm and accessible with the enlivening touches of open mouth and tousled hair. Joseph Wright of England was studying chiaroscuro in his tender, animated depiction A Boy Reading (1766), executed in gray pastels. Aside from this painting, Chardin’s Head of an Old Man (1771) stands alone in that his subject is deeply inward. The elder gentleman’s clothing does not reflect the era in which the portrait was painted, and so feels timeless. the rich colors of the flesh are earthy and muted, the subject, earth-worn. It proves the medium of pastel, ot en associated with quick, colorful studies, has, in the right hands, the capacity to embody matters most sober and eternal.

The images of the eighteenth century are not limited to the individuals in mostly elegant attire. The framed paintings themselves personify the spirit of the Enlightenment, which was defined by innovation, manufacture, education, and commerce. As the catalog describes, the manufacture of large sets of pastels flourished. Artists no longer had to devote time to make their own pastels and, therefore, had more time to paint. An increased range of colors enabled portraitists to create the endlessly nuanced color and value shifts that they observed in their subjects’ skin. The demand for pastel sets exploded. The invention of large sheets of plate glass in the 1680s allowed artists to create larger compositions than before, when their works could only be protected by the smaller, hand-made crown glass. An indigo-dyed paper was introduced that offered more weight and a smoother surface than that of writing paper, the only surface previously available. Though the paper on which pastelists were generally working remained standard in size, many pastelists, especially Quentin de la Tour, pasted pieces of paper together to create extremely large compositions. We see several of these “composite paper” paintings in the exhibit. Fixatives were also explored, but they remained largely unsuccessful.

Enlightenment on Fifth Avenue
Jean-Siméon Chardin, Head of an Old Man, 1771. Pastel on blue paper, laid down on canvas, 17 5⁄8 x 14 5⁄8 in. The Horvitz Collection, Boston.

At a time when oil paintings reigned, pastel painters were compelled to bring attention to their medium: to this end, they often, but not always, emulated the smooth, seamless finish of oil paintings. Why not, then, just paint in oil? The appeal of pastel’s brilliant color was powerful, and fit like a silk glove with the prevailing aristocratic fervor for playful pleasure. On canvas, oil painters were picnicking in the meadows and pushing maidens on swings. But it wasn’t exclusively the fanciful chroma that was so appealing. As we see in the exhibit, many artists’s sense of restraint carried over into pastel. The color was durable. It did not darken or yellow with time, as do oil colors when varnished. Pastel emitted no fumes. It was more easily transportable than oil painting supplies. An artist could travel to a sitter’s home and paint there, without disrupting the domestic calm. This appealed to both artists and patrons.

In the mid-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, pastel had been employed primarily for formal portraits of royalty. When, in 1720, Rosalba Carriera arrived in Paris with her intimate pastel portraits, the Parisian aristocracy and artists fell in love with her informal approach to the medium. The coincidence of Carriera’s visit with the medium’s technological developments spurred a leap in interest and desire for pastels. The upper class wanted professional pastel portraits for their homes. Because pastels no longer had to be fabricated by the artists themselves, amateurs, also attracted by the portability and comparative cleanliness, embraced it as a pastime.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Rococo style, now judged excessive and frivolous, was supplanted by Neoclassicism’s sparer aesthetic. As a result, pastel, so important during the Rococo period, was deemed a novelty of a bygone era, despite refined handling by so many artists. The delicate, dry, powdery, crumbly pastel granules that transformed, on the support, into Olivier Journu (1756), in the hands of Jean-Baptiste Perroneau, and into John Russel’s shirt ruffle whose abstract shape so evokes an iris peeking out of William Man Godschall’s jacket were likened to face powder. Interest in pastel waned until its reemergence in the Impressionist period.

The magnificent nineteenth-century pastel paintings of innovators Degas and Cassatt are well known. But others, such as Eugene Delacroix, James McNeill Whistler, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Anshutz, Robert Henri, William Glackens, Cecilia Beaux, Odilon Redon, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edouard Manet, and Berthe Morisot, also painted in pastel. Chardin did many pastel self-portraits in his later years; their virtues are extolled in the writings of Marcel Proust. Unfortunately, many works were rarely exhibited; some colors may fade if exposed to light for an extended period of time. (This is less of an issue with the advent of UV glass.) Shipping pastel paintings for exhibit presents other challenges. Shaking during transit can loosen granules from a painting’s surface. With fewer loans, the art loving public has had limited exposure to the achievements of pastel artists. And fewer exhibits, in turn, suppressed the pastels’ market value below that of oil paintings. Together, these factors have reinforced a perception that pastel is a lesser medium.

In 1885, Edgar Degas co-founded the first pastel society, the Pastel Society of France. Today, more than seventy pastel societies worldwide comprise the International Association of Pastel Societies.

I have visited Pastel Portraits eight times. One evening, a guard at the exhibit, Mr. Romero, noticing my close and sustained looking, struck up a conversation with me. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he said, “but more and more pastels have been showing up in the Met.” Like a laser, he pointed to four recent acquisitions. He knew just where each one was installed.

One of the ongoing joys during my visits has been to observe and overhear other visitors discovering, some for the first time, the beauty and complexity of this magnificent medium that has been in use since, at least, the late fifteenth century. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote of “making points for colouring dry” in his notebooks. He goes on to give a recipe.

Despite a six-century history spanning continents, pastel remains a “little understood medium.” The Metropolitan has, through an extraordinarily elegant and refined presentation, now made pastel a better understood medium. I am so grateful for this exhibit. I can’t wait for future exhibitions of its ongoing pastel acquisitions.

ELLEN EAGLE is an instructor at the Art Students League. This article appeared in the Fall 2011 print issue of LINEA.

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