This fine pastel sketch of the head of a French gentleman is directly drawn from the original by La Tour now in the Musee Antoine Lecuyer, Saint Quentin, France. It conforms precisely with that version and as such was probably finished by a studio assistant. As the art historian and pastel specialist Neil Jeffares observes though, “a good many repetitions of La Tour’s works were made in his lifetime: some are evidently autograph (and it by no means follows that the first version is the best). Others may be contemporary copies by unrelated artists. A substantial proportion however were probably made by pupils working under his guidance…unlike most pastellists La Tour evidently has a substantial studio and the practices and names of those involved have yet to be fully uncovered.” Certainly the skilful observation and the apparent spontaneity mark this out as an accomplished work and by an artist well aware of the techniques of La Tour.
Finished pastels emerged as a format for portraiture in France in the late 17th century and by the middle of the 18th century Maurice-Quentin de La Tour was among the most celebrated and accomplished portraitists in the medium. His considerable success led to commissions from the royal family, the court, the rich bourgeoisie and from literary, artistic and theatrical circles.
Initially apprenticed as a painter he was soon attracted to the immediacy and rapid execution of pastel. By the late 1720s he had broken into the Parisian art market and in 1735, established his reputation with a pastel of Voltaire. This portrait displayed the liveliness, informality, and virtuoso technique that would characterize much his later work. Seeking to enhance the prestige of pastel to that of traditional oil painting, La Tour developed new approaches to the medium by pioneering, amongst other things, the use of adhesives and joining multiple sheets of paper for surfaces so large that they had no precedent, certainly not in drawing. In 1737 he caused a sensation by being the only artist to exhibit pastels at the Salon, one a self-portrait and the other a portrait of the wife of artist François Boucher. Towards the end of his immensely successful career La Tour had amassed a substantial fortune and founded an art school and several charitable organisations
La Tour’s extensive oeuvre contains many outstanding pictures and his sketches, such as the copy presented here demonstrate well his remarkable technical mastery.