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The year in pastel

23 December 2013

Liotard Jean Tronchin LR236 copy In the annals of pastel portraiture, 2013 won’t go down as a particularly great vintage, but there were still a number of interesting discoveries worth looking back upon during the lull before the next storm (the New York January sales, I hope).

Few museum exhibitions had anything to offer. The notorious difficulty of lending pastels means that this is unlikely to change. The Met redisplayed a selection from their excellent 2011 exhibition (which I reviewed in the Burlington Magazine), but this time drew only from their own collection, adding three Pillement seascapes.  Last January I had the pleasure of seeing some recent additions to the Nationalmuseum collections in Stockholm, where a group of Mme Roslin pastels were at the heart of their exhibition Stolthet och Fördom. Pastels also appear in the exhibition currently at Rouen, Les Trésors de l’ombre (until 24 February). For scholarship, novelty and beauty, however, the pick of the year was surely the National Gallery’s Barocci, where a few sheets demonstrated magical lighting effects of which this medium is uniquely capable.

In the salerooms, it was a tale of two duchesses, both by Gainsborough, one a gazelle: the tiny Duchess of Marlborough leaped to $2.4 million at Christie’s, last January; but an equally charming, if marginally more sedate, Duchess of Buccleuch, with the added benefit of the Valerie Eliot provenance (out of Cats), didn’t meet a modest reserve.  Thus also the best pastel all year, surely Liotard’s Jean Tronchin (above), was too serious for today’s top-end purchasers, although I was pleased to have had a hand in explaining one of the best Gardners to have appeared recently – and successfully.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment at this year’s auctions, in France and elsewhere, was the number of Perronneaus, many in poor condition, which either failed or fetched derisory prices. Generally there were more dull, duff or even fake pastels to be seen than I can ever recall, but along with those were a fair selection of perfectly good examples from the usual suspects: fewer Russells than usual, but Boze, Capet, Frédou, Hamilton, Hoare, Lawrence, Lutterell, Nanteuil, Pillement, Piot, Pond, Read, Saint-Michel, Saunders, Schröder, Sharples, J. R. Smith, Vigée and Vigée Le Brun were all well represented. In many of the corresponding entries in the online Dictionary you will find the cryptic code “[new attrib.]” indicating personal contributions too numerous to list, but some discoveries merited lengthier discussion. The Roslin pastel of Gräfin Fries involved a story I was happy to unfold (although the purchaser still got a bargain), while the appearance of a group of Hamilton pastels from the Fitzgerald family invited more detailed attention. Two Vigée Le Brun pastels, a version of the duc d’Orléans and a pendant of Mme de Montesson, were identified among sleepers at a regional auction and appropriately retired for proper cataloguing.  Finally a powerful Vivien of Jacques Thuret, identified from an engraving but otherwise unrecorded since the 1704 Salon, made an appearance at Drouot as a 19th century anonyme inconnu but was spotted and bid up to some 17 times the estimate.

Among museum acquisitions, the Getty’s Hoare by Hoare was particularly fine, while the Tate made a rare acquisition of a pastel I identified as by Ozias Humphry; it appeared as “Baron Nagell’s black” at the Royal Academy in 1795.

In the online Dictionary many of these auction sales contributed to the 632 new or revised artist articles that appeared during the year. But there were also a good many new artists, mostly amateur and so far known only from dry mentions in archives and other old sources.

As readers of this blog will know, however, I gave considerable focus to La Tour during the year, creating a number of new files such as the updated chronological table and concordance (where you can see how far scholarship has advanced since Besnard & Wildenstein appeared in 1928) as well as the textual analysis of his early biographies. Among the specific finds were the inventaire après décès of the abbé Huber and the identification of Élisabeth Ferrand. The most delightful was the discovery of a new La Tour pastel, of the princesse de Rohan, hitherto known only, like a planet from its gravitational pull, from the Lundberg copy I discovered five years ago.

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From → Art history

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