It is not often that the Louvre Museum in Paris publishes a collection of their holdings in book form. We need to go back to 1972 when Genevieve Monnier compiled a catalogue of pastel works to thus make it possible to assess the diversity and importance of the Collection. Her catalogue focused on the attributions, provenances and identities of the sitters of the 135 pastels then owned by the museum. All drawings were published in black and white as colour would have been beyond the Louvre’s available funds. Now we have a catalogue in colour, in magnificent, gobsmacking colour (if I may use a brash Americanism).
Let’s think about pastel as a medium. Think of using a powder that is beyond tricky to apply. Think of the curse that dust must be, how easily a painting in pastel can be ruined through the presence of dust. In 2013 Christophe Leribault told an assembly of art lovers that “pastels could never be restored, only maintained; that the poor condition of the existing frames was damaging the art works” (Pastels, 25). There was an urgent need to clear dust and make air-tight cases to house the precious collection. Financial help was sorely needed.
Financial help came from generous sponsors. The result has been a revamped collection and the publication of a most impressive coffee-table book on the pastel holdings of the Louvre. Responsibility for the 2018 catalogue devolved upon Xavier Salmon, a senior member of the Musee Du Louvre’s staff. As well as authoring the catalogue, he also organized the major retrospective dedicated to Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s famous pastel drawings which included the portrait of Mme de Pompadour. Salmon was the right man for both jobs, having published books and articles on pastel as a medium.
Pastels is a joint venture of the Musee Du Louvre and the company, Canson, with a purpose of making great art widely available. Canson supported the Louvre’s restoration of ten albums including the famous Pompadour canvas, and assorted items by Delacroix and others. The present composition of the collection is a result of historical accident followed by the deliberate accumulation of a coherent body of work designed to illustrate the importance of the genre and the diversity of the practitioners’ talents.
The collection contains a wealth of information about the various whereabouts of certain items before they were brought together in Paris. For example, in 1803 the complete collection of pastels at that time, including La Tour’s portrait of Mme Pompadour, was transferred to Versailles. In 1823 the collection was returned to the Louvre. One writer declared he “was captivated by the magical effects achieved with this powdered pigment, seemingly so evanescent, and entranced by the faces that seemed to be about to speak to them, bringing news of an age gone by” (Pastels, 38). And this description is correct in every particular. The contents of the collection are often ‘speaking pictures’ that look as though interrupted in the middle of a pleasant conversation.
There are two major subsets of the collection that is published in the current volume. There are the Pastels of the Seventeenth Century followed by Pastels of the Eighteenth Century. Names of painters like Pierre Simon (1640 – 1710), Joseph Vivien (1657 – 1734), Joseph Boze (1745 – 1826) an Rosalba Carrieron (1673 – 1757) grace these pages. Of Boze it has been said that this son of a fishing boat owner was a master of effects of light and shadow especially on the face which gains in three dimensionality. By leaving the brush strokes on the face he strengthened psychological intensity and brought out character. In the self-portrait of Joseph Boze, “His posture, his almost arrogant expression his emphasis on claiming authorship of the work…[and] its supercilious air” (Pastels, 84) leave us in little doubt of the character of this gentleman.
Rosalba Carrieron is the author of “Nymph from Apollo’s Retinue” in respect of which her work is described as “grace, accuracy in the drawing, a light and delicate touch, the truthfulness and well-chosen studies of colour” (Pastels, 84). Under the influence of this painting La Tour is said to have given away oils for pastels.
Before leaving the seventeenth century we cannot fail to mention Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699 – 1779), a gigantic figure in the world of painting with pastels. His Self-Portrait with Spectacles will be known to art students for his assured hand in uncovering the magic of seeing what confronts him in a whole new way.
The eighteenth century produced the famous Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704 – 1788). No superlatives are enough to describe this man’s work. Chevalier de Noeufville de Brunaubois-Montador [everybody knows him?] wrote (according to Salmon): [his work] “retains all the grace for which she [the subject] is known…her pose is relaxed, natural, and artfully casual…nothing is more graceful than his brushwork. We see, we smell, we think we can touch everything he paints. It is truly velvet, fur, gauze: it is not possible that this is merely the deception of pigments” (Description raisonnee des tableaux exposes au Louvre, 1738, 7-8).
It would be superfluous in terms of this review to reproduce ‘Self Portrait with Pointing Finger’ and ‘Jeanne Antoinette Lenormant d’Etiolles, marquise de Pompadour’, as these paintings are so well known. Suffice it to say that these works amply demonstrate La Tour’s skill at rendering a likeness even while conveying his sitter’s soul, but also his perfect mastery of pastels laid on paper previously rubbed with a pumicestone to make it more velvety and apt to hold pigments once dampened.
There were other paintings almost as well known as these. La Tour’s painting of Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1786) is an exquisite example. Other painters given prominence in the book are Simon Bernard Lenoir (1729 – 1791), Jean Baptiste Perronneau (1715 – 17830, and, a personal favourite, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755 – 1842), whose Self-portrait with Straw Hat was painted in 1782 and has become a signature work. She is represented in the collection by a portrait of Louis Philippe, duc de Orleans, not by any means her best work. For the interested reader Vigee La Brun’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat 1782 is for many folk, a heart-stopper.
Drenched in colour, spectacular on many fronts with absorbing information about each painter and each work, this book is an inspired collection of art’s greatest masterpieces. I was unable to leave it for many hours (days? Who can say?).
Pastels in the Musee du Louvre
By Xavier Salmon
Editions Hazan Paris