Pastel: A transnational phenomenon in 18th Century Europe
Narratives of art history are conventionally structured around national schools. There is much to say for this in developing the awareness of style and chronology that underlies connoisseurship. But one chapter that cannot be so comfortably compartmentalised is the extraordinary appearance - and equally dramatic disappearance - of pastel in the space of less than a century, travelling from Italy to Paris and London. Made possible by the fabrication of crayons soft enough to colour areas rather than scratch lines, this was truly painting, not drawing. By the start of the 18th Century pastellists had a full range of colour in which to compete with oil, with the advantage that their pigments were allowed to reflect light without the refraction of drying oil and varnish whose effects mediate the impact of conventional painting. The directness and immediacy of the result made possible a uniquely sensual engagement with the viewer, and provided a visual correlative of Enlightenment thinking that propelled this shooting star across Europe.
Christie's in recent years have fruitfully combined sales of old master drawings with British works on paper, so that the present sale (together with several pastels that Christie's present on 10 and 18 July in the sales of Andrew Wyld: Connoisseur Dealer) allows us to follow the story in detail. Rosalba Carriera's celebrated trip to Paris in 1720-21 was hugely influential in transforming a minor speciality into a vogue which, two decades later, led to complaints about the excessive popularity of an art practised by an 'infinite' number of artists. Within a couple of years of her trip, back in Venice, she portrayed Lord Sidney Beauclerk (Lot 76, the present lot), grandson of Charles II and Nell Gwyn, fresh from Oxford, now on his Grand Tour. All Lord Sidney's youthful charm is captured with the lightness and spontaneity to which pastel is ideally suited (effects epitomised by Rosalba's trademark treatment of the lace jabot à la Steinkerque, while the subtle tonality is enhanced by the tiny glimpse of red coat lining): charms on which Lord Sidney depended, for as a fifth son (even of a duke) he had no money and would spend many years looking for a patron to leave him a fortune (which the bibliophile Richard Topham of Windsor duly did). William Hoare of Bath had himself only recently returned from Italy when he made a portrait of a mysterious lady (to be offered in Andrew Wyld: Connoisseur Dealer, Part II, Christie's South Kensington, 18 July 2012) whose diginity is commensurate with the sobriety of the palette: the artist again felt no need to demonstrate the full range of colours available to the pastellist. Cotes is often the most French of English pastellists, but in this 1754 example (Lot 83) his extensive use of gouache marks out a personal (and English) style.
By 1757, three years later, the genius Liotard had already travelled as widely as any artist: Geneva, Rome, Constantinople, Vienna, Paris, London, playing his foreignness to full advantage, even if he had to sacrifice his beard to marry, in The Netherlands, just before he made one of his typically enigmatic portraits (Lot 78). The lady's identity may remain a puzzle but the real mystery lies in the bravura palette, with its nervous balance between warm brown and cool grey, offset by the electric blue bows on the dress: there is nothing flashy here. The Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton had not yet set out for Italy when he made one of his delicate oval pastels of a young boy with his dog (to be offered in Andrew Wyld: Connoisseur Dealer, Part I, Christie's King Street, 10 July 2012, Lot 19), a portrait made the more poignant by the death of this only son months before his majority. Only a few years later another small oval (Lot 79), in a completely different vein, shows the features of the leader of the Lyon school of flower painting, a treasured gift to his fellow professeur at the school of drawing established to teach the special craft of transferring drawings to industrial patterns. In this riot of polychromatism Antoine Berjon delights and charms, unlike his compatriot Joseph Ducreux, whose self-portrait (Lot 82) shouts at us: I am the only pupil of the great La Tour. One of many such portraits that evidenced his uncompromising self-obsession in oil, print or pastel, the exposed areas of paper are a deliberate finished unfinishedness echoing his master's famous préparations, just as Ducreux presents his own features to bring out a remarkable resemblance to La Tour himself.
It would be a neat transnational note if the Irish James or even the English John Barry was responsible for the little pastel (to be offered in Andrew Wyld: Connoisseur Dealer, Part II, Christie's South Kensington, 18 July 2012) of a striking woman whose complexities may not be immediately obvious. But this very French confection risks undermining my argument, as it demonstrates the extraordinary depth of talent in Paris throughout the 18th Century where a work of this quality turns out to be by an artist who does not even appear in any reference book and by whom no other work is known. International forces may have caused artists to investigate pastel, but individual talent was fostered within domestic traditions: and nowhere was the training more thorough than in France. A revolution had fundamentally shifted attitudes: the price paid for pastel's immediacy was a fugacity more suited to the rococo than to the neo-classical world of the Directoire. Here we see pastel adapting to that world, with a bravura display of chalk's search for permanence in the simulated mount pretending itself to be carved in stone, and enveloping the sitter's name in a rebus.
The 18th Century pastel tradition continued after the French revolution, notably in Germany. In England John Russell remained active until his death in 1806: the two pendants from 1792 (Lot 81) demonstrate the stregth of colour which belies the use of the word "pastel" to mean anæmic. Russell's complete dominance from the death of Cotes in 1770 perhaps accounts for the absence of a continuing English school (just as, according to T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare extinguished verse drama). One of the most curious exceptions was that of Archibald Skirving, a kind of Scottish Liotard notorious for the demands he placed on his sitters while he executed his hyper-realist portraits. Until now he was thought to have stopped working in pastel by 1803, but this example (Lot 77), from the very end of what historians call the 'long eighteenth century', shows him still working in his inimitable style.
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN (LOT 76)