Why are pastel portraits so good?

December 24 2022

Image of Why are pastel portraits so good?

Picture: Sotheby's, A Portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour in Sotheby's 'Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries' sale, 25 Jan 2023,New York

The great Neil Jeffares has written an essay for Sotheby's, on the delights of collecting 18th Century pastels. For him, it's the portraiture that holds the greatest appeal:

How and why did the pastellists working in France before the Revolution uniquely capture our attention so strikingly, coherently and beautifully, compelling us to set aside political and social considerations?

As with all portrait painters before the invention of photography they were unburdened by the existential questions of representation: obtaining a good likeness was unselfconsciously a clear and specific target — indeed disputes about their success filled the Châtelet [10] and are a rich source of information about obscure painters who had fallen out with their clients and better established ones called in to provide expert testimony. (The conventional phrase “capturing a likeness” distracts from a more serious, Barthesian point: in a successful portrait, it is the sitter who captures the viewer.) But that of course is a very incomplete prescription for recreating works that to modern eyes are dominated by conventions: conventions of composition and of accessories (less central, and so less hackneyed, with simple pastel busts than in the official portraits d’apparat almost always executed in oil), as well as technical conventions of just how paint or pastel is applied to the support to create those representations. The story here of the dix-huitième pastel is the pursuit of the exquisite, a concept which (as Guillaume Glorieux [11] has argued) was legitimised by Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, whose publication in France in 1740 was taken as a justification for a short century’s display of conspicuous consumption, of the douceur de vivre or the obscene displays of luxe insolent that brought about a Revolution. Rousseau noted that “D’autres maux pires encore suivent les Lettres & les Arts. Tel est le luxe, né comme eux de l’oisiveté & de la vanité des hommes. Le luxe va rarement sans les sciences & les arts, & jamais ils ne vont sans lui.” [12] We have been embarrassed about this ever since — with the exception of the end of the nineteenth century, when there was a brief return to the values of the heady days of the Ancien Régime before the world was again returned to sobriety by war. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Belle Époque and the Ancien Régime are singled out in Thomas Piketty’s recent work as high points of wealth inequality; as we return to those levels today, perhaps a third wave of interest in pastel should be expected.

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