Maurice-Quentin de la Tour was one of the most successful and imitated portraitists of the 18th Century. His portraits, executed in pastel, became highly sought after; receiving commissions from Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, as well as from enlightened philosophers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau. In 1737, La Tour exhibited his Self-Portrait and Portrait of Madame Boucher at the Salon. These two portraits were the only works at the Salon to have been executed in pastel. As La Tour himself stated, 'I penetrate into the depths of my subjects without their knowing it, and capture them whole'. The rapidity of execution that pastel allowed, enabled La Tour to capture the subtle facial nuances of his sitters and led to his success in both aristocratic and intellectual circles.
It was his Self-Portrait that was especially well-received at the Salon, and was quickly engraved by Schmidt, whose print was copied in England and engraved again by Petit in 1747. The amusing pose, which immediately engages the viewer, has given rise to a number of interpretations, including one given by Schmidt: the pastel was drawn following a visit by an amateur and friend, Abbé Jean-Jacques Huber, to La Tour's studio. When La Tour saw Huber coming, he locked the door and rushed to the window to laugh at the disappointment on his friend's face. He has drawn himself in casual clothes, wearing an artist's cap, pointing with amusement to his right, one assumes in the direction of the studio's entrance (X. Salmon, Le voleur d'âmes, Maurice Quentin De La Tour, Versailles, 2004, no. 3).
This picture is one such copy of this amusing self-portrait. The picture is distinctive in its use of oil, rather than pastel. It is interesting to note that the manner in which the oil has been applied, especially in the layering of different hues to the face, very much gives the impression and immediacy of pastel.