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John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA

John Russell – Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory

Occasionally, I stumble upon a pastel painting from the past that leaves me breathless. Today, I’m excited to share one such discovery with you – a portrait by the English artist John Russell (1745-1806) that’s in the Getty. In this ‘close look’ blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the intricate details of Russell’s work, with the hope of uncovering valuable insights along the way.

Here’s the magnificent painting. One notable feature is the limited colour palette John Russell employed in this portrait. Whether by choice or due to the availability of pigments, the restricted use of colours plays a significant role in the impact of this powerful artwork.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA

John Russell was  known for his extraordinary skill in pastel painting. His works were highly sought after by a fashionable clientele who admired his masterful tonal effects and virtuoso application of pastel. His technical prowess, honed through apprenticeship with Francis Cotes, one of the pioneers of pastel painting in England (and a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768), allowed Russell to create captivating representations of his sitters. 

One of his notable works is this engaging portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, a painting that celebrated Gregory’s appointment as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. As we examine the portrait in detail, you’ll see for yourself Russell’s artistic prowess and his ability to capture the essence of his subjects.

Let’s look first at the hairline. It can be difficult to have us believe that the hair indeed grows out of the scalp. Russell does this easily. Notice the colours he uses along with whites and greys – the blue and pink.  

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of hairline
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of hairline

Now for the eyes – the windows to the soul! Look at the tiny pinprick of light he adds. Check out how he gives the eye volume, graduating from lighter to darker. Note too how pretty much none of the white of the eye is painted with the colour white. The eyes sit in the face, belong to the flesh around it, as do the eyebrows.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of eyes
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of eyes

Next – the nose, mouth, and particularly the skin. You can see the quality of this man’s skin with the blue layer below and those squiggles and lines of veins and the wear and tear of life. His lips looked cracked. Notice the blue grey in the areas of mustache and beard – a quality of a man’s face. If you struggle with noses, this would be a great one to copy!

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of nose, mouth, and cheek
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of nose, mouth, and cheek

Let’s move on to the cravat. There are three white areas in the painting (that beautifully help to lead our eyes around the portrait) and they all have a different quality of texture – revealing the thing they are representing.

First there’s the hair which we’ve already seen, another is the inside of the hat which we will soon examine, and here, we feel the fabric that encircles his neck, the material adding warmth to the man and a flourish of fashion. Look at the way Russell creates a soft background on which to make marks to create the broken edge of the cravat. The sheen and softness. Notice too how the artist incorporates the pink and blue colours we saw earlier.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of cravat
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of cravat and chin

Let’s go to the hat next. There’s an extraordinary collection of materials represented – fur, the leather on inside edge, the satin interior, the hair powder dusting the edge.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of hat
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of hat

Let’s have a closer look. Look at the various stitches – the small ones attaching the leather to the outside of the hat, the long white ones attaching the leather to the satin interior, and then there’s the thread that gathers together that inside material. Done with so little but says so much. As is true of much of this portrait.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of interior of the hat
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of interior of the hat

There’s not much to the hands holding the hat yet they are clearly hands with fingers and joints, ligaments and fingernails, the thumb holding onto the hat.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of the hands
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of the hands

Just a few more details.

The sleeve cuff with its buttons and creases, the hint of the shirt beneath.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of the sleeve cuff
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of the sleeve cuff

And what about the front of the double-breasted jacket with the material straining against the large buttons. There’s very little to indicate this fashionable brown wool coat with black collar – yet there’s enough there to let us know what we are looking at.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of the jacket
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of the jacket

And oh, the black collar! Isn’t it marvellous how the artist reveals the dusting of powder on the black collar and the shoulder of the coat (a similar residue to the one on the brim of the hat as we’ve already seen)? (By the 1780s, young men were setting a trend by lightly powdering their natural hair although by the time of this portrait, this application was used by older, more conservative men.)

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of the collar
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of the collar

One last image for you – a part of the background with John Russell’s small signature top right. This reveals part of Russell’s technique of smudging the pastel into the paper in broad areas to create a cohesive base on which to build up his linear marks.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA - detail of the background
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA – detail of the background

And after all those details, let’s have a look at the full portrait again. We see it differently, taking in all that we’ve examined closely. We see a man, newly appointed to his position, sombrely yet richly dressed, sitting at ease yet with a sense of alertness and knowing.

John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA
John Russell, Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory, 1793, pastel on paper, laid on canvas, 75.9 x 63.2 cm 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA

As always, I’d love to hear from you! What was your biggest takeaway looking at this portrait? What have you noticed? 

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. A few other notable things about John Russell:

Russell’s deep understanding of pastel techniques and materials (he even experimented with pastel manufacturing, writing recipes on making the sticks), led him to publish “The Elements of Painting in Crayon,” in 1780, one of the few treatises from the 1700s. Apparently it was considered a cornerstone for understanding the challenging medium of pastel.

John Russell was elected as a member of the Royal Academy in 1788. He was also appointed as the Crayon Painter to George III, further solidifying his reputation as a distinguished artist.

[As an aside, my brother-in-law gently ribs me, asking “How’s the crayoning going?” Now I can say I’m in good Crayoning company!!]

One more thing about John Russell….he was also an accomplished astronomer who painted studies of the moon! Check out this pastel 5 ft portrayal!! And this extraordinary one!

PPS. You may enjoy one of my first close-up blog posts of a similar type of portrait by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau from 1756. It’s another WOW portrait!

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Comments

10 thoughts on “John Russell – Portrait of George de Ligne Gregory”

  1. Thanks for analyzing this amazing portrait. It made me look more deeply that I might have. What color do you suppose the background paper was? Did he tone it all with pastel?

    1. You’re welcome Meg! And I’m glad it got you looking more closely at it.
      If you look in the lower right corner, you can see what looks like the beige colour of paper. The Getty doesn’t tell us the colour of the paper. Often, the paper used was a blue colour which often has faded over time.

  2. Thanks for helping us to explore that amazing portrait. Thinking of all the materials we have available in 2023 in contrast to what he had back then, his work is that much more admirable. The limited palette contributes to the seriousness of the subject. Great work!
    Thanks Gail,
    Wendy

    1. Thanks for bringing up the comparison of materials available now and then Wendy. It’s amazing what can be accomplished even with limited supplies!

  3. I love the illusion of detail when, in fact, it’s quite loose. I also studied the eyes for a very long time. What amazes me is the lack of lines – that is, the vagueness of the edges. Fascinating.

    1. Ohhhhh I’m so glad you took time looking at the details Andi.
      And yes, those eyes! The successful creation of eyes (and much else as you’ve pointed out) often comes down to shapes, values, and edge quality rather than lines/outlines.

  4. Hi Gail. Wow – this one causes me to melt a little – both in a good AND bad way. Good: astounding, exquisite work (and your deep dive is SO bang on). Bad: oh my goodness, how would it be possible to come even somewhat close to achieving this kind of perfection? No…it’s all good. It just makes me so grateful to the masters, past and current, for setting the bar so incredibly high, to prove to us that this kind of output from the human hand is actually possible.

    I just wanted to share an incredible resource site, for anyone interested in reading The Elements of Painting in Crayon. This wonderful archive site has produced search results for me several times when looking for old books, music, films, etc. Take a look at their Projects page! (There’s so many good causes to support!)

    Russell’s book is a work of art itself – hand bound, marbled paper, leather cover, etc. Of course, it’s all text, as art books were in the day, but I plan on reading it when time allows. Of course, typefaces were different then. I had to laugh – when reading the opening chapter, I asked myself, “What is a tafle? Must be some old artists’ term.” And then I looked closer and realized that, back then, the ‘s’ was often the same height and curvature as an ‘f’. He was talking about ‘taste’ LOL. It’s like reading Shakespeare – takes a while to get in the groove.

    Thanks, as always, Gail. You find the best examples to take us deep-diving with you. Happy crayoning!

    1. Hey Pam – I know what you mean about the good/bad melt! I always try to remember that there’s no one else who can be me. So learn and then think, how can I bring the learning into my own work?
      Thank you for sharing the resource – that’s marvellous!! I had recently been guided to it in another instance but hadn’t thought to check for Russell’s book there. And I laughed at the “s”/”f” conundrum. Love that you’ve shared this all with us!!

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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