attributed to Joseph Wright of Derby, ‘Study of an Unknown Man’ c.1751–7
attributed to Joseph Wright of Derby
Study of an Unknown Man c.1751–7

Celebrating the recent acquisition of Ozias Humphrey’s Baron Nagell’s Running Footman c.1795, this display explores the emergence of pastel in the eighteenth century and its phenomenal, if relatively short-lived, success as a fashionable alternative to oil paint. Tracing its evolution from natural chalk made from coloured earth – long used for figure and landscape sketches – into a full-colour portrait medium of fabricated, coloured chalk crayons, it includes many rarely exhibited works from Tate’s collection.

Though a few English artists experimented with pastel from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, knowledge of its correct usage remained rare. However, the return of young men from their grand tours, bearing souvenir pastel portraits by continental artists, established an English market for this type of work. By mid-century London had many aspiring pastellists and the medium was also popular with aristocratic amateurs. Patrons were attracted by its relative cheapness, portability and speedy execution.

Yet pastel became a victim of its own success. By 1800 it had fallen from favour and despite periodic revivals (notably by the Pre-Raphaelites and impressionists) it has attracted little critical attention since. This display explores pastel’s appeal and aims to restore the medium to its central place in the narrative of eighteenth-century British art.

Read the accompanying curatorial essay for this display.