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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just a few more details.
The sleeve cuff with its buttons and creases, the hint of the shirt beneath.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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,
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!!]
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!