Pastel Portal to the Past

I just want to talk about this painting that I really like. It’s hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Marie Fargues, the Painter’s Wife, Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1756-58 (link to the museum listing and a much better photo)

Dude. The medium of this painting is pastels. PASTELS! You know, the things that are one step up from sidewalk chalk? I’m terrible at them, and thus I can only stare at this painting with the sort of jealousy/respect reserved for things that I want to be able to do…but by magic, not by, y’know, putting in the work.

During the 18th century pastels enjoyed a spike in popularity due to a combination of factors (here’s an article that gives a good in-depth explanation). One of those things was that a pastel painting takes much less time to complete than one made with oils and so required fewer, shorter sittings. This would’ve been more comfortable for the people getting their portrait painted, and I think that comfort really shows in Liotard’s work.

It really strikes me when looking at this painting that this was a person who lived centuries before I was born, but has just as much interiority as I do. A lot of times showing the personality of the person in the portrait really wasn’t the point. You might get glimmers, hints of an expression, but your takeaway was supposed to be “wow what a powerful/important/rich person this is I am so impressed” and/or “wow what a devout/pious person this is I am so impressed”. And like, of course you’re going to be flattering as hell to these powerful and wealthy people paying you for their picture, whatever flattering means at that time and place. It is completely understandable why so many of those types of portraits were made, but for a modern viewer that can feel like looking at endless paintings of mannequins in weird costumes. It’s nice to feel a closer connection, to feel a sense of who a person was, not just their display.

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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