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Pastels, soap and villainy

15 February 2014

La Tour pres de Rieux Getty 94.PC.39Although the word “pastel” occurs nowhere[1] in the voluminous Mémoires of the duc de Saint-Simon, it is there that you should turn to understand the forces that led to its popularity and to answer the questions that I posed in a recent blog. Why did pastel reached its apogee in eighteenth century France? Why did some sitters chose to be portrayed in pastel rather than oil? Why did it all come to such an abrupt end with the Revolution? I’ve held off discussing these questions since I shall have to enter the very area which has proved so off-putting to British art historians (as I explored in Rococo and rejection). It involves demolishing some misconceptions about the relationship of art and society.

Contrary to popular belief, the social hierarchies in ancien régime France were far more fluid than in other countries during the Enlightenment. The reasons go back to the Fronde, France’s civil wars which raged when Louis XIV first came to the throne. His genius as a monarch was to see how the power of the aristocratic factions which surrounded his throne could be constrained by an immensely subtle balance opposing the old nobility (adhering to concepts of gloire and military service) to the administrative and political power which Louis entrusted only to a separate class of men from humbler backgrounds. The financiers (then as now) played a vital, parallel role. When Louis XIV had bankrupted the country, his solution was to arrange a “chance” encounter in the gardens at Marly with Samuel Bernard, the wealthiest banker in Europe, and use his charisma to induce Bernard to ignore all commercial prudence and make the “loan” (in reality, a donation of 6 million livres) France needed – all the price of a length of black ribbon. Saint-Simon’s disgust is undisguised.

A great many other financiers also gorged themselves on the inefficiencies of the ancien régime, just as they did elsewhere in Europe. Managing sugar and slaves abroad, or supplying the army domestically, were goldmines (just as they funded many of our great stately homes), while the system of tax-farming was especially lucrative in France. But in France these ill-gotten gains counted for little in the eyes of the old nobility, and those who had achieved them focused immense energy in securing the social standing necessary to support their pretensions. After all this was a country in which anyone who mattered dropped their family name and replaced it with the name of the estate they had purchased: so M. La Live becomes M. de Jully, while his brother was M. d’Épinay.[2] But while commoners could buy these seigneuries, they were not supposed to adopt the name in this way.[3]

A system in which commoners, however wealthy, could not progress would not have provided the ancien régime with the incentive structure on which it depended. This was achieved either, exceptionally, by warrant[4] from the king himself, or, more widely, by the commoner purchasing certain offices which carried a right to ennoblement, usually after a term of 20 years. These were not cheap: a position of secrétaire du roi might cost 100,000 livres – equivalent to a senior banker’s bonus today. But unlike bankers’ bonuses, the ennobled had to pay for their privilege (Louis was not as daft as our current politicians).

This mechanism of purchase of ennobling offices was widely referred to as “savonnette à vilain” – soap to wash away the filth of their base birth.[5] But it wasn’t effective: as you can imagine, the Saint-Simons deplored all this as sham, and these newly ennobled financiers found that they had not secured the social recognition they thought they had purchased.

But there was another domain in which this social recognition was bestowed – one which continues to distinguish France from countries like England where the word “intellectual” is a term of abuse (although in the previous century the précieux did invite ridicule, the strength of long tradition withstood this wobble). One should not be mislead by Voltaire’s ill-treatment at the hands of the chevalier de Rohan’s servants. Ancien régime France conferred the greatest respect on those who achieved distinction in the arts and sciences. Writers and philosophers (members of an international République des lettres), musicians, actors (and actresses) belonged to an élite for which the only admission ticket was intellectual or artistic distinction. To this day Britain has no equivalent of the Académie française.

What emerged in France in the eighteenth century – what converged in a unique way – was a social structure in which the wealthiest were hungry to demonstrate not only their wealth, but their taste. And it was essential in doing so that they not become the butt of Molièresque bourgeois gentilhomme humour. This meant espousing the most fashionable and sophisticated form of portraiture available: one which demonstrated that they were ahead of, not merelyVivien Samuel Bernard 1699 Rouen copy apeing, the old nobility.

In 1699, newly ennobled by letters patent, Samuel Bernard turned to Vivien (left: pastel, musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen) for a very sophisticated commemoration of this rite of passage: one which subtly avoided the trappings of wealth and power and presented instead a psychological inquiry (with almost Jansenist severity) into his strength of personality. But arguably Bernard was too far ahead of his time in this. Vivien’s extraordinary talent was appreciated particularly in an inner circle of practising artists (such as Bernard’s father): among grand patrons, his support came from the Bavarians,[6] and from Monseigneur (the Grand Dauphin), whose circle at Meudon was, as Saint-Simon explains, not particularly fashionable. So later Samuel Bernard commissiRigaud Bernardoned the (rather splendid but) conventional oil portrait by Rigaud now in Versailles (below, right).

Thus, although Vivien offered all the necessary artistic ingredients, the great vogue for pastel only took hold a few years later, when Rosalba Carriera carried off the prizes, not by superior talent, but by winning over important patrons all the way up to the new king. Not long after, Bernard’s son, M. de Rieux (note the name), had himself portrayed in pastel (it is scarcely believable that the life-size full-length portrait shown at the top of this post was made in so fragile a medium) in a work by La Tour that is surely one of the marvels of western art of any age.

This gripping need for pastel arose from a hunger for a special type of recognition. Come the Revolution, that vanished. It was not pastel that died but the quest for nobility. Élitism of course did not die, but it sailed under different colours, avoiding anything that could be construed as a return to ancien régime values. Out went the pursuit of exquisite fragility, replaced by the Neo-Classical, militaristic robustness appropriate to the new order.

You have to go to Los Angeles to see the président de Rieux, but you can read more about the pastel here. The potency of its magic ability to confer nobility has not however been lost. American railroad barons and property tycoons themselves turned to art to wash away the taint of their fortunes, founding museums that, during the last century, acquired the major works of Western art that European museums were no longer able to buy (or “save” for their nations). Most bought the safe but largely predictable portraits by Gainsborough and Nattier that grace their walls (along with some duds that do not). But the reason why the J. Paul Getty Museum is one of the great museums of the world is not simply because of its superior buying power, but because it has understood and responded to the unequalled refinement of La Tour’s masterpiece – an intellectual achievement that puts the museum well ahead of many European institutions that continue to neglect this field.[7]


1. Unless I missed it in one of the longer passages about bonnets. Of course you will need to read between the lines. For a more straightforward exposition of these ideas, read the research of the great historians Michel Antoine, François Bluche and Daniel Roche: the latter’s La France des Lumières is excellent (and I believe there is even an English translation).
2. One of the shibboleths in French genealogical research before Google was how to consult reference books, arranged by the unstated family names.
3. Another myth is that “de” indicates nobility – it is not a reliable indicator; the safest indication in contemporary documents was the description “écuyer”.
4. As Bernard received in 1699, three years before his Saint-Michel.
5. Bernard was trebly base: his father was a mere painter; he was brought up a Protestant, and only converted in 1685; and he was initially in trade – as a draper and jeweller before turning to finance.
6. Specifically Max Emanuel, Kurfürst von Bayern, acting under the guidance of the prince de Grimberghen, brother of the famous connoisseur Mme de Verrue. Max Emanuel’s Wittelsbach relatives also patronised Vivien, but insisted he work in oil, a medium in which his talent was far less exceptional than in pastel.
7. Let us not forget the excellent collections of pastels at Chicago, New York and Washington.

From → Art history

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