The star French pastellist of the middle of the eighteenth century was undoubtedly Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788), whose works are readily seen in the Louvre and elsewhere. Little is known about his childhood or training, except that he was the son of a musician, and was born in Saint-Quentin in northern France. He appears to have at least started an apprenticeship with a local painter, then went to Paris to paint for a living in 1723, and turned to pastels by about 1727.
He seems to have struck lucky early in his career, as in about 1731 he painted a portrait of the great philosopher Voltaire which was engraved, and presumably sold as a print. He exhibited at the Salon from 1737, a portrait of the wife of the artist François Boucher and the first of a series of a hundred and fifty self-portraits, which were to become popular features of the Salon for the following thirty-six years.
This brought him recognition by the Royal Academy, and at the royal court.
His Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux from 1739-41 shows the son of one of the leading financiers of the day, who is wearing his robes of office as the president of the second Court of Inquiry in the parliament in Paris. He is shown looking erudite in his study, which La Tour paints in minute detail. This portrait was exhibited at the Salon of 1741.
Painted in pastels in 1745, La Tour’s lavish Portrait of Duval de l’Épinoy shows the Marquis de Saint-Vrain (1696-1778), another of the leading financiers of the day. This was shown at the Salon of 1745 to great acclaim, eliciting the compliment that La Tour was the King of Pastels. By this time, the artist had his own apartment in the Louvre Palace, giving him ready access to paint portraits of members of the court.
It was only appropriate that the King of Pastels painted this Portrait of Louis XV of France wearing his finest ceremonial armour in 1748. Louis reigned from the age of five until his death in 1774, the second longest of any French monarch. Unfortunately, he was more devoted to his mistresses from the late 1730s, and when he was gravely ill in 1744, the king’s confession to obtain absolution from his chaplain was distributed publicly, permanently tarnishing his reputation.
Louis first met La Marquise de Pompadour in 1745, and she soon became his mistress and was awarded her title in recognition. La Tour painted this magnificent portrait of her between about 1749-55, when she was the king’s confidante and advisor, as she remained until her death in 1764. The detail below shows La Tour’s finely balanced attention to detail, gestural marks and soft-focus flesh.
La Tour’s Portrait of Anne-Jeanne Cassanéa de Mondonville, née Boucon painted in pastels in 1752 shows a well-known harpsichord player, who married another musician, and lived between 1708-1780. She is naturally sat at her instrument, just about to play.
La Tour not only excelled at modelling the softer surfaces and materials which pastels were so suited to, but tackled the harder and glittery materials used in jewellery and the like. They are particularly well shown in his Portrait of Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, Dauphine of France (1731–1767) painted in 1756-60. Rejoicing under her full name of Maria Josepha Karolina Eleonore Franziska Xaveria of Saxony, she married Louis, son and heir of Louis XV, in 1747, so becoming the Dauphine.
His Portrait of Pierre-Louis Laideguive from about 1761 shows a notary who seems to have passed his time reading.
As he entered his sixties, La Tour’s royal and court portraits tailed off, but he didn’t retire to his home town until he had turned eighty. He died there in 1788, at the age of eighty-three.