French portrait drawings

from Clouet to Courbet

8 September 2016 –
29 January 2017

Recommend this exhibition

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Self-portrait (detail). Black chalk and charcoal, 1852. 

See over 65 portraits by French artists spanning four centuries, from the early drawings of Jean Clouet (1480–1541) and his son François (c. 1510–1572) to the exquisite drawings of the Realist Gustave Courbet (1819–1877).

The British Museum has a remarkable collection of French portrait drawings, including examples by the most celebrated artists – from Clouet, Watteau and Ingres to Fantin-Latour, Courbet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Many have not been widely displayed, so this exhibition is a chance to see beautiful, rarely seen works. The exhibition illustrates the development of portrait drawing from the Valois and Bourbon kings to the upheavals of the Revolution, Napoleon’s Empire and beyond.

Drawing was a more informal medium than official painted portraits. Drawn portraits were intended for circulation among friends or family of the sitter, rather than a wider public. Many of the portraits also demonstrate a range of experimentation and innovation. Drawings were cheaper to produce than oil paintings, sculptures or medals, and allowed the artist greater creative freedom, often for preparatory studies.

This exhibition begins in the 16th century with Clouet’s portrait series commissioned by Henri II’s queen, Catherine de’ Medici. Psychologically penetrating as well as artistically beautiful, these previously unexhibited portraits give a strikingly intimate glimpse of figures at the Renaissance French court. Later on, artists turned to the medium of chalk or watercolour to represent members of their own families, such as Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune’s portrait of his infant daughter, or Albert Lebourg’s striking portrait of his wife and mother-in-law from around 1879.

The 18th-century works include famous sitters such as Marie-Antoinette and Leopold Mozart performing with his children Wolfgang and Marie-Anne. The exhibition also includes examples of original and creative ways of approaching portraiture, such as Pierre Dumonstier’s playful ‘portrait’ of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s hand, drawn in 1625, or Henri Fantin-Latour’s self-portrait studies from 1876, which show the artist seen from behind – a portrait without a face. The section focusing on 19th-century artists features Ingres’s splendid portrait of Sir John Hay and his sister Mary, made in 1816, Toulouse-Lautrec’s dynamic portrait of Marcelle Lender, drawn in 1894, and the confident self-portrait by Gustave Courbet.

The drawings, selected from the Museum’s unparalleled collection, are complemented by portraits in other media, including prints, medals, enamels and an onyx cameo. Together they illustrate the development of French portrait drawing from the Renaissance until the 19th century.

Illustrated handlist