LONDON — The National Gallery has brought together an oil painting and pastel version of the same composition, known as “The Lavergne Family Breakfast,” by Genovese-born artist Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702–1789) — the former unseen in the UK for more than 100 years — in a side by side comparison for the first time in 250 years. Pastel is rarer in art than oil paint, and thus relatively unsung in art history. This exhibition is an extraordinary opportunity to compare differences in application, tone, and physical composition between the mediums, and observe how these affect the overall feel of each piece, and by extension its figures. 

Oil paint, which makes up the vast majority of art historical painting, is durable and “fixed,” or set, when dry on canvas or other supports. Its translucency allows artists to model their subjects in layers and evoke depth, achieving a rich and luminous finish. Pastel by comparison is a pigment suspended in a pale chalky filler and binding medium, rolled by hand into crayon and applied directly to vellum or paper. Certainly before modern fixatives were invented, the image was “unfixed,” and thus incredibly fragile; think of it as a painting that never dries (and think of the implications for transporting or displaying and, crucially, conserving such work). 

It’s likely that all visitors can visualize the application of paint by brush, but fewer will be familiar with the process of “painting” with pastel. Dr. Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, the curator, begins the exhibition with samples of pastel crayons dating from c. 1910s in Paris, and explains how the ground had to be rubbed with pumice or razor blades to roughen the surface for the pigment particles to cling (a fascinating video demonstrates the process).

Liotard specialized in pastel portraits, more of which are displayed here. The pastel “Lavergne Family Breakfast” (1754), a delightful composition showing his niece watch her own niece dip a piece of bread into milky coffee, was purchased by his most significant patron, William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, for the huge sum of 200 guineas. Twenty years later Liotard recreated it from a tracing in oil, and it is astonishing to see how close the two versions are; pastel built up into high impasto for certain catch-lights in the jugs are equally raised in the oil version.

A crisper treatment in the oil, with higher contrast, is immediately apparent, especially in the shadow cast by the left figure over the middle ground. Yet this contrast makes the oil figures’ expressions slightly harder, lips more pursed, than those of the softer pastel figures. Pastel comes “pre-mixed” in crayons, while Liotard presumably had to mix and match precisely each oil color; viewers will notice slight tonal differences in some areas. Close looking at the surfaces also reveal craquelure webbing over the hardened oil, as well as the rough, almost grainy texture of the paper surface. 

The longer viewers look from side to side at each piece, the more minute details and textures they’ll notice, and the more the fundamental differences between these mediums will emerge. Photographic reproduction loses crucial degrees of subtlety. There is no greater argument for viewing artworks in person than exhibitions such as this.

Installation view of the oil painting (left) and pastel (right) (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)
Installation view picturing pastels in Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast at the National Gallery, London (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through March 3. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Francesca Whitlum-Cooper.

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