Women Get Real


Portrait of Mademoiselle Louise Jacquet, about 1750, Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-1789), pastel on vellum, in its original frame, 75 x 60.8 cm (29 1/2 x 23 15/16 in), lent by a private collection

Across 18th-century Europe, artists relished the convenience and versatility of pastels to make portraits, which ranged from straightforward likenesses to imaginary renderings. Yet the social conventions of the period meant that men were more often in the privileged position to commission portraits of themselves for public display, whereas depictions of women tended to represent muses or allegorical figures. A current exhibition — “Pastel Portraits: Drawn from Life?” on view at the Getty Center through September 17, 2023 — asks visitors to consider: who gets a portrait and who decides what it looks like?

Featuring works from the Getty Museum collection, “Drawn from Life?” presents two standout works that depict real women in conventional settings. The first, Jean Étienne Liotard’s “Portrait of Mademoiselle Louise Jacquet” presents a professional opera singer seated at her desk, gazing confidently at the viewer. The second, “Portrait of Christine Mitoire with Her Children” by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, recently acquired by the Getty Museum, shows a fashionably dressed mother breastfeeding her infant while smiling at her older son.

Portrait of Christine Mitoire with her Children, 1783, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (French, 1749-1803), pastel on three sheets of blue paper, mounted on canvas, 98.5 x 79 cm (38 3/4 x 31 1/8 in), Getty Museum

Labille-Guiard exhibited the portrait of Madame Mitoire during her 1783 debut at the Paris Salon, where it caused quite a stir, as it was uncommon for artists to depict scenes of women nursing.

“It was commonplace for women to use wet nurses as opposed to breastfeeding at the time, so Labille-Guiard’s groundbreaking portrait of Mitoire was part of a wider movement that normalized breastfeeding, a trend that simultaneously led to more women staying at home,” explains Ellie Bernick, former graduate intern at the Getty Museum and co-curator of the exhibition. “This pastel exemplifies the complex nature of this history.”

The exhibition highlights other works from the Getty Museum collection by Rosalba Carriera, Thomas Gainsborough, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, and Robert Nanteuil, among others.

“Including some of the finest pastels from the Getty collection, this exhibition explores a moment when more realistic portrayals of women became increasingly common, superseding habitually idealized images,” said Julian Brooks, senior curator of Drawings at the Getty Museum. “The portraits by Labille-Guiard and Liotard are compelling examples of this shift.”

“Pastel Portraits: Drawn from Life?” is curated by Ellie Bernick, former graduate intern at the Getty Museum, with the assistance of Julian Brooks, senior curator of Drawings.

Take part in a historical event — Pastel Live! Paint along (or just listen and take notes) as 30 top pastel artists from around the world share their most valuable insights.


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