When eighteenth-century pastellists competed with oil painters for portrait commissions, they faced a challenge: to create pastels on paper as large as paintings on canvas, they had to join together multiple sheets. Piecing them together and disguising the seams led to new techniques and opportunities for image manipulation . . .

Papetterie (Paper Maker’s Workshop) (detail) (1767) by Robert Bénard after Louis-Jacques GousierGetty Research Institute

Artists most often use pastels on paper, rather than on canvas or panel like oil paints. As we see in this illustration, in the eighteenth century, paper was manufactured by hand in sheets no wider than the span of a papermaker’s arms. As a result, pastellists of the period at first worked on a modest scale. 

Sir James Gray, Second Baronet (about 1744 - 1745)The J. Paul Getty Museum

One such pastel is this portrait of an English diplomat by the pioneering Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera. 

Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1739–1741) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum

As they began to compete with oil painters for major portrait commissions, though, some pastellists pieced together multiple sheets of paper to create large, continuous surfaces. Often mounted on canvas, these composite paper supports allowed pictures made using pastels to match the scale and splendor of oil paintings. 

Self-Portrait (1735) by Charles-Antoine CoypelThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This sumptuous self-portrait by Charles-Antoine Coypel gives us a clue to its own paper support. The portfolio tucked under the artist’s arm contains sheets of blue paper: the same kind he used to make his pastels.

Self-Portrait (illustration of layout) (1735) by Charles-Antoine CoypelThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Four sheets of blue paper make up the support for this work; their corners meet in the background just left of Coypel’s shoulder.

Portrait of Théophile Van Robais (1770) by Jean-Baptiste PerronneauThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Posed with placid dignity, the sitter in this portrait by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau appears quite unperturbed by the splitting of his likeness across multiple sheets.

Portrait of Théophile Van Robais (illustration of layout) (1771) by Jean-Baptiste PerronneauThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Perronneau practiced both pastel and oil painting, producing life-sized, bust-length portraits in both media. This example belongs to a series of family portraits; others in the group are pieced together in the very same way.

Portrait of Joseph Gulston and his Brother John Gulston (1754)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Sometimes piecing allowed pastellists to
work up multiple portraits separately and combine them into a single image. In
this example by the English artist Francis Cotes, two brothers appear in fancy
dress before a wooded landscape. 

A vertical seam, just visible to the naked eye, slices the picture in two . . .

Portrait of Joseph and his Brother John Gulston (illustration of layout) (1755) by Francis CotesThe J. Paul Getty Museum

. . . each brother inhabits his own sheet. Cotes seems to have used piecing to avoid making two little boys sit still and pose for him at once.

Portrait of Joseph Gulston and his Brother John Gulston (1754)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The resulting portraits are disarming and direct, knit together with a tree and the older brother’s hand. These details distract us from the join in the sheets and make the two images one.

Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1739–1741) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The most spectacular pieced pastel in the Getty collection is Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux. Over six feet tall, it was the largest pastel made in the eighteenth century.

Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (illustration of layout) (1740/1742) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum

It was pieced together from sixteen separate sheets of paper.

Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1739–1741) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum

La Tour’s sitter was a rich and powerful Parisian magistrate. The artist lavished great care on his robes of office and sumptuous surroundings. These would befit any man of Bernard de Rieux’s station, but the details that distinguish him as an individual are:

his face . . .

. . . and his hands—each studied from life.

And each was worked up on its own sheet of paper. These small, irregular sheets are pasted down on top of the twelve large, rectangular papers that make up the rest of the surface.

Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (illustration of layout) (1740/1742) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A fourth irregular sheet appears at lower left, just above the sitter’s buckled shoe. This piece corresponds to a blue velvet drapery and very likely conceals a mistake.

Piecing served purposes other than size—granting artists the opportunity to slot the heads of important sitters into compositions posed by anonymous models or to paper over their own errors. It was Photoshop before Photoshop.

Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux (1739–1741) by Maurice-Quentin de La TourThe J. Paul Getty Museum

La Tour concealed his joins with feathered edges, thickly applied pigment, and camouflaging design elements, but today, if we look long and hard in the right places, we can often spot them with the naked eye.

Credits: Story

© 2020 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

Learn more about the pastel artworks in this online exhibit "Eighteenth-Century Pastel Portraits," on Google Arts & Culture.

A version of this material was published in 2018 as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition "Pastels in Pieces", January 16, 2018–July 29, 2018, at the Getty Center.

To cite these texts, please use: "Pastels in Pieces," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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