Portrait of a Young Woman
14 5/8 x 10 5/8 in. (37.1 x 27 cm)
Medium and Support:
Pastel on paper
Gift of Ann Chahbandour and Jay Robert Stiefel
Label from American Originals: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection, La Salle University Art Museum, December 16, 2015 through March 4, 2016:
Johnston was both the earliest known female artist and the first pastelist in the English colonies of North America. Probably born near Rennes, France, she lived in England and Ireland before moving to Charleston, South Carolina, with her second husband who was a commissary of the Church of England. Johnston supplemented her husband’s limited income by selling modestly-priced portraits in pastel. Only about 40 portraits by Johnston survive, making this Portrait of a Young Woman a rare example.
A pastel is a crayon made of loosely-bound powdered pigment bound with a weak adhesive, and part of the pastel portrait’s appeal is its fragility. The French encyclopedist Denis Diderot described the medium as a “precious powder that will fly from its support, half of it scattered in the air and half clinging to Saturn’s long feathers.” Pastel portraits of society’s elites were in high demand in 18th-century France and England, as well as in their colonies. Because of the lack of varnish on their surface, the colors in pastel drawings remain brilliant and fresh, and would have sparkled in 18th-century interiors lit by candlelight and filled with mirrors and gilt furnishings.