Quentin de La Tour dettaglio toilette

The wonderful pastels of the Louvre and some gossip

The pastels of the Louvre Museum collections aren’t very well-known because they are immensely fragile, and so they aren’t in any permanent exhibit: they can be seen on request.

This article is a good chance to take a peek to some of them.

Let’s pass the threshold of an imaginary eighteen-century living room and bear the awkwardness that the confrontation with certain glares could cause, as if we had interrupted something…

Joseph Boze_Autoritratto promozionale 1782
Joseph Boze (1745-1826), promotional self-portrait, meaning it meant to show the artist’s ability (1782). I’d say: mission accomplished!

The characters we find, incredibly expressive thanks to the pastel technique, are mostly prominent figures of the XVIII century.

It’s impossible not to fall into the temptation of salon gossip. So, let me introduce you to a famous love triangle:


Maurice Quentin de La Tour_Louis XV
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, The King of France Louis XV (1710-1774), was considered one of the most handsome men of his time. The mere fact of being king probably was a great part of his charm, nonetheless, this portrait, considered quite lifelike at the time, seems to give some foundation to the rumors.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour _Marie Leszczynska
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, the Queen of France Marie Leszczynska (1703-1768), from the Polish royal family, here when she had already past her prime. Her marriage with Louis XV was happy, in the beginning, but the king’s sensuality was so uncontrollable he soon needed to look for satisfaction somewhere else…
Pompadour Quentin de La Tour
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Jeanne-Antoinette Lenormant d’Étiolles, marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), the third wheel. From 1745 to her untimely death, was the most influential woman of the realm, as king Louis XV’s favorite. In Versailles, she lived in the apartments right over the king’s, and there she remained even after the fire of their carnal relationship had extinguished. For this reason, more than “his favorite”, Madame de Pompadour could be described as the King’s best friend, as they remained united by a bond that lasted almost twenty years.

The portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788) between 1752 and 1755 met a very specific need of the beautiful Jeanne-Antoinette, who had already been the King’s favorite for ten years.

The marquise wanted to promote her new self-image of a woman of refined taste, patron of the arts, artists herself, and sensitive towards the new ideas promoted by the Enlightenment.

De La Tour managed to include each one of those aspects in the details of his work, a delicate assembly of eight sheets of blue paper, including the one with the model’s face that he had surely painted live.

Pompadour de La Tour dettaglio
Detail of the rich toilette of the Marquise de Pompadour. The perfect lifelike effect on textiles is one of the perks of the pastel technique.
Pompadour de La Tour dettaglio
Detail of the elegan dress of the Marquise de Pompadour and of the musical sheet she’s browsing. It’s worth noticing the complete lack of jewelry, probably to show the inner wealth of the subject that echoes in the symbols of culture around her.
De La Tour Pompadour dettaglio libri
The books that Madame de Pompadour chose to have painted behind her aren’t random. The King didn’t appreciate most of the tomes, as he didn’t appreciate the new Enlightenment ideas. Authors like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and d’Alembert, on the other hand, were welcome in the marquise’s library. This shows the exceptional freedom the favorite could enjoy: no-one else could have dared so much without incurring in the king’s wrath!

Quentin de La Tour, recognized by his peers as “the prince of pastel painters”, stood out not only for the perfect illusionary portraying of matter, dresses mostly, but also and above all for the attention he reserved to the model’s psychology.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour autoritratto
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, self-portrait around the 1737. He invented the “bullseye” composition at the window (almost like a porthole) with a pointing finger.
Quentin de La Tour dettaglio toilette
Detail of the dress of the Dauphine Marie-Josephe de Saxe (1731-1767) by De La Tour (1760).
Maurice Quentin de La Tour d'Alambert
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Jean Le Rond d’Alambert (1717-1783), one of the authors of the Encyclopedia and a member of the Academy of the Sciences since 1741 (1748). The lively expression perfectly expresses the smartness of the model.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, ritratto di religiosa. L'intensità dello sguardo della modella non è affatto comune e, certamente, l'intenzione dell'artista era quella di renderne fedelmente la luce.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, a portrait of a nun. It’s impossible to remain indifferent to the intensity of her gaze.

Many artists, each with his own way, followed de La Tour’s example, generating a real debate between oil and pastel painters.

The second technique, in fact, needs shorter sittings and a fresher skin tone, more realistic, things that made the fortune of this technique in the XVIII century. On the other hands, the works are incredibly fragile, being not much more than a delicate deposit of colored powder.

Boze dettaglio
Detail of an unfinished portrait by Joseph Boze (see his self-portrait before in the article) that perfectly shows the freshness of the skin tone that the pastel allowed.
Simon Bernard Lenoir
Simon Bernard Lenoir (1729-1791), a portrait of his friend Henri Louis Cain, a famous actor known as Lekain (1729-1778) in the role of Orosmane in Voltaire’s tragedy Zaire.
Simon Bernard Lenoir dettaglio
The incredible sparkling effect of the costume!
Jean Valade
Jean Valade (1710-1787), madame de Chancelay Lacroix (1736-1820) and her daughter Suzanne Félicité.
Jean Valade dettaglio
Detail of the ribbons, lace, and jewels decorating the model’s toilette.
Jean-Baprtiste Perroneau
Jean-Baprtiste Perroneau (1715-1783), Marie-Anne Huquier with a kitty; the model couldn’t have been older than 14.

The great pastel portrayers weren’t just men: in 1770 the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture welcomed Marie-Suzanne Roslin (1734-1772), who had stood out for her astounding portrait of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785) praised by Diderot himself!

Marie-Suzanne Roslin Pigallle
Marie-Suzanne Roslin, sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (precisely the one who gives his name to the famous red-light district in Paris!).

The Academy must have felt somehow threatened by the increasing number of emerging female talents since that year they limited the number of possible new female members to 4!

One of the most famous, mainly for her oil portraits, was Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) who received prestigious assignments directly from the Royal Family until she became the favorite portraitist of queen Marie-Antoinette.

And here’s another couple who made people talk, portrayed with the pastel technique by Madame Le Brun herself.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, pastel portrait of the Marquise de Montesson (1737-1806), morganatic bride of Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, a member of the royal family.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun duca d'Orleans
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, the duke Louis-Philippe d’Orleans (1725-1785), also called the “big duke”, who married the Marquise de Montesson against the will of his family. His heir, during the revolution, became famous with the name Philippe Égalité.

The success of pastel painting started to dwindle with the French Revolution and the public turmoils of the first half of the XIX century.

The symbol of the levity of a time that had run its course, the Ancien Régime, the delicate and faint pastel slowly gave way to the miniature, more practical to keep… and to transport if you had to run away!

Some nostalgic artist, however, persisted in keeping the tradition alive, and with such outcomes!

Aleksander Kucharski
Aleksander Kucharsky (1741-1819), Marie-Philippe Caude Dumont-Walbonne first wife of the painter Jacques Luc Barbier-Walbonne. Despite the beauty of this portrait, his most famous pastel remains his unfinished one portraying the famous queen Marie-Antoinette.

Aleksander KucharskiEt voilà! That’s enough for today.

I’ll remind you that when they aren’t engaged in temporary exhibits, the Louvre pastels have a dedicated area in the Sully wing, where they are exhibited on a rotation to protect them from decay.

Now go and discover!