Louise Abbéma (30 October 1853 – 10 July 1927) was a French artist. She isn’t an artist I’d heard of prior to discovering this pastel painting by her in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. We’ll have a close look at it and I know this examination will be helpful for anyone painting portraits of young children!
Louise Abbéma was born to a wealthy family with connections to the art community. Abbéma started painting early and eventually studied under various artists such as Carolus-Duran who also taught the painter John Singer Sargent. According to Wikipedia (where you can read more about her), she “first received recognition for her work at age 23 when she painted a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, her lifelong friend, and possibly lover.” A regular contributor at the Paris Salon, Abbéma specialized in painting genre scenes, allegories, and portraits in oils and watercolours.
So let’s look at the painting, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon.” It’s 18 x 15 inches and done in pastel on canvas. You can certainly see her skill with this medium! Parts of the painting appear more blended while in others, the pastel strokes are visible and parts of the canvas are left untouched. These latter qualities reveal the influence of Impressionism on the artist.
Rather than creating an overly sweet and sentimental portrayal, Abbéma instead gives us something of the nature of this child. You can almost sense the quiet resignation at having to sit for this portrait. The eyes are slightly downcast, lips gently pursed. Is she as well behaved as she appears??
Now I want to take you through a series of close-ups, pointing out some of the aspects I think are worthy of your attention.
Let’s begin at the top right, where the artist signs her name. In this position, it doesn’t detract from the portrait but is still confidently apparent. The background is a neutral colour and if you look closely, you can see some dabs and “scratches.” The canvas tooth has been saturated, with no sign of the light colour coming through.
Let’s look at the ribbon on top of the girl’s head. It has an almost graphic abstracted design with areas of value clearly demarcated. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s all hard edges. Look at the way it disappears into the hair or background in some places.
Moving down to her hair and fringe (bangs), you can see how Abbéma again changes up the quality of edges, as well as the values, to create a sense of three-dimensionality. Notice that the subject lighting is pretty even and comes from the front and overhead so there’s little shadow change from either side of the face making it harder to show volume. The artist’s attention to the fringe helps with that.
On the right side, the hair looks darker and stands out against the side of the head (but still with a soft edge between skin and hair) whereas, on the left side, the hair and skin are similar in value. Notice too that the hair is blocked in areas of light, middle, and dark and you see almost nary an individual hair! I love those few dark lines dividing some of those shapes.
Moving down, let’s have a look at the difference in ear treatment. The left one picks up more of the light yet much of the ear stays in a middle-value range, disappearing into the side of the face as well as the background. The ear on the right has almost no highlights and although it stays in a middle value, it shows up because of the darker hair around it.
Also have a look at how the girl’s hair – the hair that would be behind her head – disappears into the background both because of value (hair and background are almost one and the same) and the soft edge between them. There’s also very little rendering of what we’d imagine hair to look like in these shapes.
Next, let’s look at the ruffles over her top. I “read” it as ruffles yet there’s very little detail to tell me that. What’s there, does the trick! There’s a beige colour in two values/tones with what looks like a bit of pastel pencil (?) linear work but very little of it.
Moving across the portrait, have a look at the texture and pattern of the clothing. Gatherings and pleats are revealed by a loosely applied mid-value blue/grey that shows shadows, and flat blocks of colour in light blue and a wee bit of light violet to describe the main part of the outfit. Look how the pastel is so loosely applied in the bottom half. You can see small areas of untouched canvas.
Moving up the right side of the portrait, have a quick look at the sleeve. Here it’s very obvious where the canvas is left blank. Also, Abbéma has added some darker grey-blue marks that don’t appear in many other areas of the portrait.
Moving up, I love the way the shoulder on the right combines hard and soft edges – a hard edge on the right side, a softer edge at the top where the ruff moves over the shoulder to the back. The artist gives a softness to the edge that divides clothing and background so they blend into each other visually.
Before we get to the face (I’m leaving the “dessert” for last!), have a look at the neck collar/scarf and see how so much is said with so little. Notice too the areas that seem to disappear – into the blue clothing, into the background. And examine the quality of edge that separates the chin from the clothing.
Right! Let’s get to the face. First, a quick reminder of the whole face before we break it down. Ahhh the smoothness of a child’s face – no sign of life-experience wrinkles yet!
Starting at the bottom, the lips. Detail and yet hardly any! I love the touch of more saturated red on the right: it suggests the sense of rosebud innocence. Notice too how little of the mouth is outlined, and also, how little shadowing there is.
And next up, the wee nose. Children don’t have the vertical structure that appears as they develop into adults. This image is a bit blurry but you can still see the difference in colour temperature between the tip of the nose (cool – probably partly as a result of some reflected light from the blue outfit) and the cast shadow (warm).
And finally, we come to the eyes! There’s so much to discover: the colour in the eyes themselves where light reveals that colour, the way the whites of the eyes (not white at all!) slip into the surrounding skin, the darkness in the eyes not just from pupils but also cast shadow from the lids, the emphasis on subtle temperature change (rather than value) to suggest volume in the eyelids, the scantness of eyebrow and brow structure.
And that’s it!! Let’s have a look at the whole portrait again so you can see all the parts together again. And perhaps you’ll view the portrait a bit differently now. I’ve also included a black and white version for comparison. You can see in the value design that the attention is all on the head!
What I also found interesting about this piece is the mix in style between the loose rendering and application of the Impressionists and the more finished look of academic work.
And now, I’d LOVE to hear from you!
Had you heard of Louise Abbéma before?
And what do you think of this portrait?
Also, was this close-up post helpful?
Let me know by leaving a comment. Let’s get a conversation going!
Until next time,
PS. There was something about the attitude of the sitter by Louise Abbéma, if we imagine it more exaggerated and rebellious, that reminded me of Augustus John’s portrait of his son Robin.
PPS. A look at a photograph of Louise Abbéma shows a fringe of similar style to the sitter… 😁
UPDATE after hearing back from the National Museum of Women in the Arts!!
Thank you for your interest in Louise Abbéma’s Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon. We forwarded your questions to one of our colleagues in Paris who is an expert in pastels. I’ve copied his answers to your questions below:
Q. Can you tell us how she managed to use canvas? How pastel can stick to it?
A. To my knowledge, there has not been any study of how Abbéma used canvas specifically. The use of canvas with pastel remained relatively rare among 19th century artists (compared to paper), but it certainly was done. Manet is well known in this regard. Ditto with de Nittis, Puvis de Chavannes, etc. I tend t othink that the use of canvas is round more among artists who see themselves as painters above all (as opposed to pastelists). In any case, the textured surface of canvas (as long as it is not too thick) lends itself well to the use of pastels, as the pigment clings to the texture.
Q. How much does the use of canvas, as opposed to sanded paper, effect the type of strokes and blending used?
A. I do not think that there is a large difference between the effects one can achieve using canvas over sanded paper. I would recommend reaching out to contemporary pastellists to gauge their opinion on the matter. But judging by the pastels I have seen, I do not see a large difference.
Q. Could you comment on the preparation for pastel on canvas surface?
A. I have never heard of preparation of pastel being any different for canvas than on paper.
Q. Was this framed under glass..or sealed in some way?
A. I am not certain about this work specifically, but pastels are almost always protected by glass. The medium is too fragile to not protect it in this way.
*[NOTE FROM NMWA’S REGISTRAR: the work is framed under Optium museum glass]
Q. I’m curious if the canvas was raw or primed with something before the pastel was applied.
A. This is a difficult question! I am not sure what preparation the canvas received before the artist applied the pastel.
I hope this helps!
Hannah Shambroom, Exhibition Coordinator
This is marvellous! I have written museums and public galleries in the past and never had a response so I very much appreciate the follow-through on this!
I will be sure to share all this info on my blog post. I do wish though there was more actual info on the use of pastels and the prep of the canvas by this artist. Nevertheless, we have responses! Yay!!
Again, thank you!!