French Portrait Drawings: Ten works from the British Museum's upcoming exhibition

By Culture24 Reporter | 08 August 2016

Taken from the British Museum’s French portrait drawings, a new exhibition illustrates the power of the medium between the Renaissance and the 19th century

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a young woman
François Clouet, Portrait of Catherine de Médici (1550). Black chalk with red chalk on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
From Clouet to Courbet opens with drawings by Francois Clouet – an intimate picture of the 16th century French Renaissance court.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a young man
Charles Toussaint Labadye, Portrait of a young man (1797). Charcoal with stump heightened with white on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
Clouet’s drawn portraits of courtiers and the royal family were commissioned by the French queen Catherine de’Medici, and his portrait of Catherine herself will be on display for the first time.

Other portraits made in chalk or watercolour in the 18th and 19th century offer a uniquely personal glimpse into artists’ personal lives.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a young man
Jean Michel Moreau le Jeune, Portrait of the Artist's Daughter at the age of Two (circa 1772). Black and red chalk heightened with white on buff paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune used chalk to draw his infant daughter, in about 1772, creating a delightfully naturalistic record of childhood.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a young man
Gustave Courbet, Self Portrait (1852). Black chalk and charcoal on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
The piece demonstrates how the drawn portrait allowed for a degree of familiarity and intimacy than that which had been common in portrait paintings from the same period.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of two women against shadows
Albert Lebourg, Portrait of the Artist's wife and Mother in Law (circa 1879). Charcoal and graphite heightened with white on buff paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
Another example of family portraiture is by the lesser known 19th-century artist Albert Lebourg, depicting his wife and mother in-law in smoky atmospheric black chalk.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a family playing around a piano
Leopold Mozart and his two children, Wolfgang Amadeus and Marie Anne (1777). Watercolour and bodycolour on contemporary gold, black and green wash mount© The Trustees of the British Museum
Lebourg’s velvety technique gives the impression of soft forms looming out of the darkness.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of two young men in profile
Nicolas de Plattemontage, Portrait of Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne and his wife Geneviève (1677). Black chalk with red and white chalk on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
The evocation of the candlelight and the unusual position of the sitters side by side shows the great intimacy that can be achieved through portrait drawing and experimentation with the medium.

Drawings were cheaper to produce than an oil painting or sculpture and allowed the artist greater freedom for creativity.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a hand holding a paintbrush
Pierre Dumonstier II, The right hand of Artemisia Gentileschi holding a brush (1625). Black and red chalk on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
Pierre Dumonstier made a playful ‘portrait’ of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s hand in 1625.

This piece plays with the very notion of what a ‘portrait’ is, through focusing on the quality that makes a sitter unique – not Artemisia’s face, in this instance, but her hand, the source of her artistic brilliance.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a man and a woman in a drawing room
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Sir John Hay and his sister Mary (1816). Graphite on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
Throughout its history, the drawn portrait has been primarily an informal medium, created for circulation among friends and relations of the sitter rather than the wider public.

Artists often turned to chalk or watercolour to depict members of their own families, or to experiment with innovative concepts of portraiture.

One example of artistic experimentation can be seen in Henri Fantin-Latour’s sheet of self-portrait studies from 1876.

The artist shows himself, rather playfully, from behind – a portrait without a face.

A photo of a British museum french drawing of a young woman
Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Marcelle Lender (1893-5). Black chalk on paper© The Trustees of the British Museum
Toulouse Lautrec’s vivid portraits of the Parisian demi-monde close the exhibition.

There is also space for a drawing of Catherine’s husband Henri II – one of the first representations of Henri as king, which formed the basis of his royal iconography.

Portraits on paper will be highlighted alongside examples in other more formal media, including medals, enamels and an onyx cameo.

Visitors will also get the chance to see well-known portrait drawings alongside others that have never been exhibited before.

  • French Portrait Drawings from Clouet to Courbet is at the British Museum from September 8 2016 - January 29 2017.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to see portraits

Windsor Castle, Berkshire
As part of the visitor route at Windsor Castle, The Drawings Gallery shows changing exhibitions of material from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Special themed displays are shown alongside a selection of treasures, including drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.

, Manchester
The current Portraits exhibition explores the relationships between sitter and artist, from Francis Bacon’s portrait of his friend Lucien Freud to a self-portrait of Adolf Wölfli made in a mental asylum near Berne. Until February 14 2017.

, Edinburgh
The highlight of the current exhibition, The Tweeddales: Power, Politics and Portraits, is the fascinating group portrait of the Marquess and his family, attributed to the Flemish artist Sir John Baptiste de Medina, which was painted around 1695. Until May 28 2017.
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