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The Dictionary of pastellists ten years on

28 August 2016

SireulWhile my time might better have been spent at the beach, during the quiet period this summer I’ve taken the opportunity to do some housekeeping on the online Dictionary of pastellists. Many of you won’t notice: that’s a good thing, as radical changes of occasionally used websites are a growing nuisance for us all. A dictionary in which the additions are immediately obvious cannot have been much good in the first place. But while language lexicographers have developed a marketing patter that seems to revolve around the twenty most trivial, irritating or ephemeral neologisms spotted during the year (the latest being something of a damp squib), the art history dictionary-maker (particularly one specialising in times past) has even less opportunity to demonstrate his industry without revealing his prior failings.

We’ll come to some of those later. But first I should explain that I’ve addressed something that’s been niggling me for some time. The entries in the printed dictionary (2006) could be cited by the time-honoured page number. That could be refined to include column and even which image in the column (so p. 339Ci takes you straight to the Getty Liotard of Mountstuart). But the online articles keep being updated, and the layout changes; so unless you have the exact version of my article another author is using you won’t be able to follow the citation. I’ve now dealt with that by introducing individual numbers which will allow them to be identified rapidly. I ought to call them “digital object identifiers” or something equally highfalutin, but you get the idea: they take the form J.123.4567, appear at the start of each entry, and are invariant (once assigned, the numbers won’t change).

The digits are a double decimal system, each element (.artist.pastel) infinitely subdivisible so that new items can be slotted in anywhere – there is no limit to the number of decimal places, and the numbers indicate sequence only (so, for example, J.123.46 follows J.123.455 and precedes J.13.51 – which is by a different artist). Unlike the cardinal integers which typically appear in catalogues raisonnés, this system has no sense of finality or completeness: which is just as well.

These J numbers are readily searchable online using Google or at the search box on the home page of the Dictionary. You can try Googling “J.49.1175”: this should go straight to the Getty Mountstuart (you shouldn’t even need the quotes, but whether you get to the entry in one click depends on how your browser/Acrobat are set up; you should get immediately to the pdf, but may have to reinput the number in the search box within that document). So citation is simple: Dictionary of pastellists online, J.49.1175.

You’ll see the numbers at the start of each entry in discreetly small blue type, to compensate for what some will see as the gross immodesty of the chosen prefix. Believe me reader, I resisted: I needed to find a distinctive letter that people wouldn’t forget, that wasn’t P (too many responses to Google searches for P numbers) or a symbol like ψ, as people can’t type this directly into search boxes (I tried all those first before adopting J numbers).

My penance was rapidly imposed: I thought I could make all the changes automatically with an ingenious macro, but more tedious manual intervention was inevitably required (there is a bug in the interface between Word and Acrobat which neither Microsoft nor Adobe can cure). It doesn’t solve the problem of where the pastels should go, but it does solve the problem of where did I put them.

You’ll see too at the end of each entry a summary of the Dictionary’s view on attribution and identification which hitherto has depended on reporting the views in the literature and noting dissent somewhat cryptically; now the Greek letters (the full explanation is set out in the abbreviations tab) make this clear. I’ve also noted where of interest which pastels I have personally examined in case this affects your confidence in my assessment. These symbols were largely generated automatically from my hidden notes: I have of course seen many more pastels (almost everything for example sold in London since the late 1980s) which are not noted as such. But none of us has ever seen enough.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to update almost every article, mostly with minor but new biographical details. You can check the overall progression by comparing individual articles now online with the original Dictionary, or with the UK Web Archive six-monthly snapshots of the site. As a rough indicator of the expansion of the Dictionary, the 2006 print edition included nearly 600 pages of artist articles (including anonymous articles); laid out continuously in the same format without gaps, the articles online in 2016 would occupy some 2150 pages. (Before you complain, remember my publisher’s advice in 2006: add any more, and the book will be unpublishable in printed form. And reflect on the 80:20 rule: the print edition has most of the important stuff, in far more convenient form.) These files include records of more than 36,000 pastels, of which roughly 16,000 are known at least from photographs. But there is also a great deal more biographical information, often about completely unknown artists: there was never a need for the Dictionary to repeat information about well-known artists who happen to have turned once or twice to pastel, although of course major pastellists get comprehensive coverage, but sometimes entirely new findings about very minor artists will look disproportionate.

Where has this material come from, apart of course from new pastels coming onto the market? There is a rapidly increasing amount of genealogical material accessible online, comprising not only original documents but records of others that would previously have been impossible to find and for which paper copies can now be ordered. The Archives nationales are now better indexed online, although the delays for getting documents copied has increased proportional to the ease of identifying the documents in the first place. A vast number of parish registers outside Paris are now fully digitised. And in England the instant availability of most wills has transformed the work. (Conversely the explosion of amateur genealogy has led to a proliferation of guess-work and fancy that may not always be obvious: but then, as I showed in a recent post, the old standard works were not error-free either.) Of course this mostly relates to minor artists whose entries no one is likely to consult. And each of these “discoveries” will seem of little significance unless you happen to have a particular interest in that artist.

Since there are several hundred such changes in the last update alone, I’m not going to list these individually trivial changes. Thus for example we now know the dates of La Tour pupils like Montjoie or Vernezobre, who sat to him and made pastels. Mlle Navarre has acquired her correct forenames: Antoinette-Geneviève – but only because her brother’s mysterious disappearance triggered notarial attention. Some of Labille-Guiard’s nine pupils emerge (at least partly) out of the darkness: Mlle Frémy, etc.; some, for example Mlle Verrier, now have forenames (Angélique-Louise), while others (including the elusive Jacques-Charles Allais) now have dates. I’ve even had to move Victoire Davril from d’A to D to accord with contemporary documents. Among the stories with a whiff of scandal, see Victoire Clavareau.

With others the inventaires après décès provide a snapshot of their lives. Mlle de Briancourt, for example (who strictly speaking I should have moved to Oyon, but after a life of total obscurity, can I sentence her again to further oblivion?) was, despite her social condition, reduced to painting fans. But the Davesne family, whose potato suppers Vigée Le Brun so cruelly cites as evidence of their penury, were actually rather comfortable: the pastellist had already bought some of the series of pension annuities that figured in his inventaire. Perhaps he was a miser; or perhaps his pupil was once again gilding the story of her own progression. Step by step the artist Léon-Pascal Glain is emerging from the darkness, although I still haven’t found the proof that Vigée Le Brun was godmother to his daughter Louise-Élisabeth born in 1774.

Nor are the discoveries confined to the pastellists themselves. Much of the story of their interconnections is revealed only in the genealogies, to which I’ve added more (but still incomplete) hyperlinks. The sections on collectors and that on inventors, suppliers &c. (which didn’t appear at all in the 2006 edition) are greatly expanded (I suspect these sections are underused, and have toyed with the idea of integrating them in some way: suggestions welcome). Does it matter that we now (as of last Monday) know Jean-Claude-Gaspard Sireul’s date of birth? (It does of course matter that he was the great patron of François Boucher, whose 1761 pastel of him is above; its authenticity was once questioned, but not by me. It’s J.173.214, if you want more information – although you may need to help Google by putting this in quotes, as it happens to resemble an IP address.) Or a number of other new biographical details which I shall publish in a forthcoming note. You may think this is at many removes from what belongs in a dictionary of pastellists. But is it? It was after all the passion of people like Sireul that led to the creation of these works, and what influenced his taste and trained his eye are I think a proper part of the prosopography of the phenomenon.

All these examples are French, but there are many more from other countries. (I sent a list of last year’s significant English changes to the Oxford DNB which they have so far ignored.) But that’s enough for this post.


From → Art history

  1. Lowell Libson permalink

    Neil, You have had a busy summer! Very useful improvements. Thank you. Lowell

  2. Sarah Vowles permalink

    I can only imagine how much work this must have required! Well done Neil and thanks for keeping the site so scrupulously up to date. I hope you have plans for a well-earned break at some point though…!

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