By Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings
Prized for its brilliant coloring and matte surface, the pastel medium was used by artists in Europe as early as the 16th century. But it was the 18th century that saw the zenith of the medium, coinciding with the enormous rise in popularity of portraiture as an artistic genre. Made of powdered pigments formed into a paste or crayon, pastels were deemed particularly fitting for portraiture given their suitability for blending and creating subtle skin tones and a variety of textiles and landscape elements.
Patrons of the 18th century regarded pastel portraits as unique, partially because they offered different viewing experiences than portraits made in other media. English pastel artist Frances Cotes (1726–1770) described their effects as such:
Crayon [pastel] pictures, when finely painted, are superlatively beautiful, and decorative in a very high degree in apartments that are not too large; for having their surface dry, they partake in appearance of the effect of Fresco, and by candle light are luminous and beautiful beyond all other pictures.
Meant for intimate domestic spaces such as sitting or breakfast rooms, pastel portraits became popular additions to collections of family portraiture accumulated by wealthy Europeans. Favorable to this rise, as well, was the fact that pastel crayons could be easily transported and required no drying time, thus providing the flexibility and rapidity of execution prized by both artists and patrons.
The Cleveland Museum of Art recently added to its collection of 18th-century pastels a large, full-length portrait depicting George Clavering Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”), 3rd Earl Cowper, executed by Irish artist Hugh Douglas Hamilton in 1785 (fig. 1). The British vogue for pastel portraiture was in full swing by the 1780s, when the earl sat for Hamilton in Florence, Italy, where he had resided for many years. Florence was a required stop for any Grand Tourist visiting the continent from the British Isles — and for the expat artists hoping to win their patronage.
Born in Dublin, Hamilton first gained recognition for his pastel portraits of the fashionable upper classes of Dublin and eventually London, where he was celebrated in the popular press for capturing strong likenesses of his sitters. Early on, he specialized in small oval-format portraits, which could be executed and framed in one sitting for a fixed rate. Hamilton’s large, full-length pastel portraits appeared only when he traveled to Italy in his forties, staying for several years in Rome and Florence. In Rome, he became close friends with Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova and English painter John Flaxman. His interaction with these artists, and his exposure to the full-length oil portraits by Pompeo Batoni, inspired him to create several full-length pastels of British travelers before landscapes, classical architecture, and ruins.
When Hamilton arrived in Florence in 1783, the English-speaking press noted his “correctness of . . . design, . . . perfect harmony of . . . colouring, and . . . striking resemblances.” He was so esteemed that he was elected a member of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design) in October 1784.
Cowper, for his part, was a commanding presence among the cultural community in Florence. He lived splendidly in a series of rented palazzi and was a dedicated patron of the arts and sciences. He championed the music of George Frideric Handel by holding performances of his works in Florence, collected Renaissance masterworks by Raphael, and even sponsored scientist Alessandro Volta’s work on electromagnetism. For Hamilton, winning the patronage of this well-connected paragon of culture in Florence constituted a prestigious career win.
Hamilton portrayed Cowper in a vivid red coat, buff breeches, and a costly gold-trimmed waistcoat, which prominently displays the sash and star of the Order of Saint Hubertus. Cowper had been inducted into the order in March 1785, probably with the sponsorship of his close friend Pietro Leopoldo, the Hapsburg Grand Duke of Tuscany. Saint Hubertus was a knightly order of aristocratic hunters from throughout the Hapsburg empire whose motto was “Honoring God by Honoring His Creatures.” Hamilton’s depiction of an extensive woodland landscape, consisting of soft brown and turquoise tones describing trees, hills, and a sparkling stream, supports the idea that the portrait was made in honor of the earl’s induction into the order. Enhancing the wildlife theme is the earl’s splendid hunting dog, an Italian cane corso with cropped ears wearing a boldly rendered, shining metal collar inscribed with the name Cowper (fig. 2). The dog receives a tender pat on the head. Hamilton’s technique emphasizes linear clarity and displays a variety of marks ranging from fine blending on the face to more broadly applied strokes and unblended areas in the landscape (fig. 3).
One trace of the artist’s practice is best appreciated with raking light shone across the surface of the pastel (fig. 4). The earl’s head, hat, and cravat were executed on a separate sheet of paper, which can be seen in the slightly raised, irregular shape of the paper surface. Hamilton therefore took the likeness of the earl’s face on a small sheet in the earl’s presence, later adhering it expertly to the larger sheet before completing the rest of the figure and background. The generous application of powdery pastel was ideally suited to conceal the edges of such an insert. After the likeness and presumably a sketch of the proportions of the body were taken, Hamilton could complete the composition in his studio using a mannikin posed in the desired position.
The somewhat artificial but grand positioning of the earl’s arms perfectly suited the taste of Hamilton’s patrons and is typical of contemporary portraits, such as the CMA’s Portrait of Colonel Charles Heathcote by Joseph Wright of Derby. The domestic scale of both the Wright of Derby painting and the Hamilton pastel provides a contrast to the large Grand Manner portraits on display in the CMA’s British gallery by Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, and Joshua Reynolds, which were meant for large halls or galleries. The Hamilton portrait will join these works in the British gallery in the coming months, where visitors can see for themselves the qualities unique to pastel portraits that made them so appealing to 18th-century audiences.