Thursday, 25 November 2010

Pastel Hero

In the eighteenth century portrait artists' hall of fame, the names you're most likely to hear are Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and justifiably so: they were the painters of choice to the rich and famous of eighteenth century society. Their likenesses were highly sought after and their respective businesses boomed as aristocrats and actresses alike flocked to their salons to be painted. Yet in the sea of eighteenth century portraitists who have become half-forgotten through the passing of time, there is an unsung hero and champion of the delicate art of the pastel. 

Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self Portrait, 1773
His name was Jean-Étienne Liotard; an unassuming looking Swiss-born artist who studied in France and Italy. Throughout his career, he enjoyed remarkably prestigious patronage, painting and drawing the likes of the Pope and the Austrian royal family and travelling the length and breadth of Europe, dressed in his favourite Turkish costumes.

Maria Johanna Gabriela of Austria, 1762
Drawing with pastels is difficult to get right. I've tried it many times myself and never been completely happy with the results. Liotard succeeded where many before and since have failed: his drawings have a lightness of touch but are also full of depth. The above portrait of Marie Antoinette's older sister (sometimes marked as a portrait of Marie Antoinette herself) shows Liotard's skills to great effect. The whole sketch jumps from the screen, from the row of silken bows to the softly rouged cheeks.

Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, 1749
Looking at this image of Maria Gunning dressed in fantastical "oriental" costume, you would be forgiven for thinking that the medium used is not pastel at all. With skilful shading and blending, Liotard created remarkable likenesses. To my modern eye, his portraits have a photo-realism in a time when the camera was over a hundred years away into the future.

The Chocolate Girl, 1743-5
Perhaps the most well known of Liotard's pastel drawings is that of The Chocolate Girl. His model was not an illustrious figure, but Liotard has rendered her beautifully and with great care, from the smooth texture of her skin to the creases in her apron. Delicacy with substance and an eye for tiny detail, Liotard's images remain etched in my mind long after my eyes have stopped looking at them.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Pastel is a difficult medium to work with. And these images are lovely. I've seen that image of Marie Antoinette's sister many times and always thought it was of MA herself.

  2. Those are beautiful! I too know how difficult it is to work with pastels, so these pictures are just the most fantastic works. The one of Maria Gunning has to be my favourite!

    Hope you're ok up North with all that snow, it hasn't acutally hit London yet, but we'll supposedly have some tomorrow - we'll see. I just wish we could have some for Christmas...

    Have a lovely week, Love from London xo

  3. Nice post,interesting

  4. Ingrid and Mademoiselle Poirot - Pastel is horribly difficult to work with. I've tried so many times and just can't get it right. I haven't given up yet though!

    It's interesting you think the second image is of MA, Ingrid. I'm not sure...I've seen it attributed so many ways. I would be happy to say it was definitely MA if the chin was a little more pronounced!

    We've got quite a lot of snow up here and it's still going for it now. We always get it in this part of the world anyway, regardless of whether the media blows it out of proportion or not!

    Ian - thanks for visiting!

    Have a lovely week everyone...