Friday, January 29, 2016

Notes on the pastel portraits and techniques of Jean-Etienne Liotard

These are some notes I made when visiting the exhibition of artwork by Jean Etienne Liotard at the Royal Academy of Arts - after I saw the new exhibition 'Painting the Modern Garden' on Wednesday.

I'd been meaning to visit this exhibition for quite some time as it includes a lot of pastel portraits and I wanted to take a close look at them from a technical perspective.

If you like pastels or create art using pastels and have the time to visit before it ends of Sunday then I'd recommend you do so if only learn more about pastel paintings were created in the 18th century.

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Archduchess Marie-Antoinette of Austria, 1762
Black and red chalk, graphite pencil, watercolour and watercolour glaze on paper, heightened with colour on the verso, 31.1 x 24.9 cm 
Cabinet d'arts graphiques des Musees d'art et d'histoire, Geneva. On permanent loan from the Gottfried Keller Foundation, inv. 1947-0042
Photo Musee d'art et d'histoire, Geneva. Photography: Bettina Jacot-Descombes 

So here are the notes interspersed with images from the exhibition.

Media and lightfastness

Most of the artwork is pastel rather than oils - but to be honest you'd never be able to tell at a distance. The works are extremely well preserved and the highly pigmented colour is holding up very well indeed.

People think pastel is a problem from a lightfastness perspective but that's simply not true.

The issue with lightfastness is twofold.
  • either it's either pigment related - in which case a pigment which is not lightfast suffers whichever medium you choose to use it in 
  • or it's related to the quality of the support and the extent to which this is archival
It's the fact that pastel works are often on paper which make them somewhat problematic in much the same way as watercolours can be - because too much light is not always a good thing for some papers.

That's what makes Liotard's use of calf vellum and parchment so very interesting. Mainly because I don't think I've ever seen pastel works on vellum before - or if I have I didn't realise they were on vellum!

The works on vellum are performing extremely well. The difference I noticed was between the works on paper - where there is some evidence of the fibres coming to the surface and the works on vellum - which seemed to me to be as fresh as a daisy!

I wondered if the vellum had the effect of making the colour more saturated as it does with watercolour where the difference between paintings on vellum and paper are quite startling.

I also wondered about what sort of treatment if any did he give before he started using the pastels.

As an aside I discovered when I got home that apparently Liotard was rather fond of trying all manner of unusual supports and also painted pastels on supports such as prepared canvas, silk and wood!

There was an odd bit of evidence of poor handling at some time in the past. I noticed two thumb prints on one of the works which had left an oily mark which somebody had tried to disguise without much success. It highlights that one of the other strong characteristics of pastel works is the need to protect the surface. I come back to this in comments about framing below.
Jean-Etienne Liotard, Julie de Thellusson-Ployard, 1760
Pastel on vellum, 70 x 58 cm
Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur, inv. 278. Rodolphe Dunki, Geneva; acquired 1935
Photo SIK-ISEA. Photography: Philipp Hitz

Features of his pastels

  • most are pastel on vellum - with some on parchment and some on paper. There were a few oil paintings also. I dug around online and came up with a wonderful paper called
    Liotard's pastels: techniques of an 18th-century pastellist. It's a paper to savour for all those interested in the History of Pastel Painting - and most particularly by those interested in the colours he used and his favoured use of vellum as a support. It tells us a lot.
Trained as a miniaturist, Liotard might indeed have appreciated the very smooth, white and translucent surface of calfskin aged between eight days and six weeks. It enabled him to work small-scale details while its property of absorbing colours allowed more layering than on paper or ivory.
  • the vellum pastels appears to be on large calf skins. By way of contrast he was making pastels out of paper which had been joined to get the size he wanted. Maybe it was easier to get a big support from a calf skin than from paper at the time he was working?
  • It's unclear how the vellum was treated - there was no mention or explanation in the exhibition  - whether or not any treatment was any different to what people do today
  • the pastels on paper showed quite a bit of evidence of foxing (brown spots on the paper). Interestingly the V&A report that the Two main causes are mould and iron contaminants in the paper.
  • he uses blue paper on occasion; and 
  • in more than one artwork I thought there was a strong suggestion of a reddish underpainting.
Jean-Etienne Liotard, L'Ecriture, 1752 
Pastel on six sheets of blue paper, 81 x 107 cm 
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 
Photo (c) SchloB Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. Photography: Edgar Knaack 

Approach to portraits

As I went round the exhibition I began to realise there was a bit of a 'recipe' for portraits being adopted by Liotard.

It turns out that I wasn't far from the truth. He published a treatise

The treatise he published in 1781 remains highly theoretical with 12 principles and 20 rules. His aesthetic theories were combined with advice on the proper artist’s attitude, based on patience, reason, choice of subjects and the acceptance of criticism regardless of who provided it.
Here's some of the things I noticed:
  • virtually all his portraits used a similar palette:
    • the for resolved portraits typically used pinks, neutrals, coloured greys and cream and white for the flesh; turquoise very often turns up the clothing; other favoured colours for clothes were a golden ochre and a red somewhere between Indian Red and Cadmium plus blacks and greys. The background shades from light to deep umber colour - usually from left to right as is the stylistic convention for light in portraits in his day.
    • the small drawings on paper used the technique of black and red chalks on white paper or black, red and white on brown paper
    • this promoted a unity across the portraits and the exhibition which was impressive.
    • it also made me think that anybody commissioning a portrait from him knew pretty well what sort of colours might be involved
  • There's a strong sense of tones within his drawings and paintings - they read well.
Liotard defined more precisely his use of colours in rules V and XV, recommending the use of nine tones: four light, four dark and one medium.
  • most - but not all - the portraits are facing right in terms of their body but looking straight out of the picture plane and at the viewer.
  • although the majority of the larger formal portraits have a matt flat surface for most of the portrait - where it's very difficult to see how the pastel was applied (it's been smoothed away - see ) - in some of the portraits, contour hatching has been used to suggest the contours of the face and the folds and curls within their hair
  • the treatment of the fabrics is uniformly expert - reminding me of Ingres.
  • the background is always a neutral shade - which made the colours positively bounce into the room! This was gradated within the work to reflect the suggestion of where the light was intended to be (very often from the left). It struck me that it was consistently produced from different tones of umber.
  • he used a Porte-crayon for the fine strokes. This is a drawing instrument used from the seventeenth century onwards. It's split at one end and has a sliding ring which is used to secure the pastel. (I think I may well end up writing a blog post on this particular instrument especially after I found out about the use of split bamboo to hold charcoal earlier this week!)

The smaller drawings using black red and white chalks are absolutely exquisite and I much preferred them to the larger more formal pastel 'paintings'. The demonstrated a mastery of draughtsmanship.

These are the ones that I'd like to have on my wall. He must have had a very steady hand!

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Ekaterina Mavrocordat, 1742â??43 
Red and black chalk on paper, 21.7 x 15 cm 
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. KDZ 1626 
Photo Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photography: Volker-H. Schneider  

Framing of Pastels

I'm an inveterate inspector of frames every time I come across a work in pastel - and hence there was much peering sideways at the edge of frames on Wednesday afternoon.

I noted they had been framed in a variety of ways - and who knows dictated in what way and what time. As I discovered recently (see The reasons why frames for art change over time) very few artworks remain in their original frame.

None of the larger formal pastel portraits used a mount around the image - which is another reason why they resembled paintings in oil rather than drawings in pastels.

A number of these had a sizeable gap between the surface of the artwork and the glazing.

By way of contrast on others, the glazing appeared to be resting on the surface of the pastel - almost as if the pastel had been made into some sort of glass sandwich.  I was always told to avoid this at all costs because of the problems of condensation and glass - so I assume all pictures framed in this way spend their time in temperature controlled environments. An alternative perspective would be that this might account for the foxing.

Other artwork

Liotard didn't only draw people - he also produced still life paintings.  There were a couple of standard fruit bowl type paintings - but there was also this.....

...which has come all the way from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  The link to the Tea Set painting on their website suggests that
He began painting tea and coffee sets in the last two decades of his life when age, changes in taste, and his political beliefs caused a decline in requests for the pastelportraits that were his specialty.
Jean-Etienne Liotard, Still-life: Tea Set, c. 1770â??83 
Oil on canvas mounted on board, 37.5 x 51.4 cm 
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, inv. 84.PA.57 
Photo The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 


Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for this interesting report on Liotard's portraits.

Although no calves are involved, I am beginning to work pastels on vellum. It is the contemporary rag variety, but nevertheless it is the smooth vellum surface. I treat it first with pumice and binder. It has a tremendous effect and I want to say supports greater detail, just as the smooth side of Canson provides for more detail than the rough side.

shevaun said...

A fascinating read, particular as I love painting on vellum. I would imagine that the larger pieces must have been mounted to board because vellum, being skin, is highly susceptible to humidity and will always try to revert to the shape of the calf or sheep (parchment). Smaller pieces are okay, but larger pieces tend to warp with heat and humidity. As pigment sits in the surface rather than sinking in as it does with paper, you get a much cleaner edge and brighter colour. I'm intrigued! Is this on in April?

Kerry Nowak said...

Thank you so much for this review! I would have loved to see this exhibition, as I love Liotard and as a pastel artist , I am fascinated by their longevity! It was great to hear how fresh they looked and how they had been framed! Brilliant, thanks.

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