LOS ANGELES — Eighteenth-century portraits of European elites are often imposing. Not unlike the paintings of today’s wealthy, they are meant to hang in homes with high ceilings and long hallways. But portraitists working in pastels, a popular medium of that time, faced a unique challenge. Unlike canvas used for oil paintings, the paper used for pastels were available in sizes that fell short of the typical large-scale portrait commissions. Pastels are also a finicky medium, unforgiving to mistakes.
Pastels in Pieces, at the Getty Center, presents a small collection of works that circumvent the limitations of their medium. While the artists included in the exhibition are considered “masters” of their time, the works here are remarkable not just for their subject matter or artistry, but rather for the way in which the artists’ process is revealed. The pastels, pieced together from multiple sheets of paper to form complete portraits, resemble puzzles that invite speculation about their creation.
French artist Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s portrait of Louis XV, for example, is a triumphalist painting of a royal standing before a besieged city. Upon closer look, the king’s face is framed by a patchy outline of paper edges, revealing an extra layer that has been pasted over the torso and suit of armor. While drawing the face separately from the rest of the work likely served the purpose of saving the king some time from posing, the structure of the work also reveals the extent to which portraits responded to their era’s fashions and vicissitudes. Political successions and military defeats could easily swap out Louis XV’s face with another king and the cathedral of Tournai (in the background) with a landmark from another vanquished city.
A portrait of two young brothers by English artist Francis Cotes brings a bit of levity to the exhibition, along with an exercise in contrasts. The older brother, Joseph Gulston, poses in a decadent, overflowing robe, standing tall and looking directly at the viewer. To his left is the younger brother John, unbreeched and posed with a flower basket, staring away from the camera and barely containing an impish grin. A vertical seam that runs down the center of the painting effectively divides the pastel into two paintings, with Joseph’s left hand drawn into John’s frame to create the illusion of seamlessness. Posed separately, the two brothers reveal their personalities, the teenage Gulston affecting maturity and the four-year-old John making light of the situation. The artist may also have separated his subjects for more pragmatic reasons, like the need to separate two restless, quarrelsome brothers.
Competition for major portrait commissions required artists working with pastel to match the size and scale of oil paintings. As the exhibition’s centerpiece, Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s portrait of a French magistrate, patched together with 12 sheets of paper, stands almost seven feet tall and is the largest 17th-century pastel work. If there were any doubts about the commercial viability of pastel in the artist’s time, this work certainly would have silenced skeptics. It is also representative of the perverse extent to which elites spent vast amounts of their wealth to preserve their likeness for posterity. Unsurprisingly, pastels briefly fell out of favor during the fervor of the French Revolution.
Pastels in Pieces reveals how artists under pressure come up with expedient solutions to thrive under specific material conditions that threatened their livelihood. What has remain unchanged since the 17th century is the need for artists to address such challenges and navigate or circumvent the tastes of patrons. While the works at the Getty once represented the whims of the powerful few, they serve as enduring examples of how specific mediums — whether it’s painting, sculpture, or dance — respond to the ebb and flow of their material and political contexts.
Pastels in Pieces continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles) through July 29.