Louise Abbéma – “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon”

Louise Abbéma (30 October 1853 – 10 July 1927) was a French artist. She isn’t an artist I’d heard of prior to discovering this pastel painting by her in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. We’ll have a close look at it and I know this examination will be helpful for anyone painting portraits of young children!

Louise Abbéma was born to a wealthy family with connections to the art community. Abbéma started painting early and eventually studied under various artists such as Carolus-Duran who also taught the painter John Singer Sargent. According to Wikipedia (where you can read more about her), she “first received recognition for her work at age 23 when she painted a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, her lifelong friend, and possibly lover.” A regular contributor at the Paris Salon, Abbéma specialized in painting genre scenes, allegories, and portraits in oils and watercolours.

So let’s look at the painting, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon.” It’s 18 x 15 inches and done in pastel on canvas. You can certainly see her skill with this medium! Parts of the painting appear more blended while in others, the pastel strokes are visible and parts of the canvas are left untouched. These latter qualities reveal the influence of Impressionism on the artist.

Louise Abbéma, Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon, no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA

Rather than creating an overly sweet and sentimental portrayal, Abbéma instead gives us something of the nature of this child. You can almost sense the quiet resignation at having to sit for this portrait. The eyes are slightly downcast, lips gently pursed. Is she as well behaved as she appears??

Now I want to take you through a series of close-ups, pointing out some of the aspects I think are worthy of your attention.

Let’s begin at the top right, where the artist signs her name. In this position, it doesn’t detract from the portrait but is still confidently apparent. The background is a neutral colour and if you look closely, you can see some dabs and “scratches.” The canvas tooth has been saturated, with no sign of the light colour coming through.

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - detail of signature and backgroundLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – detail of signature and background

Let’s look at the ribbon on top of the girl’s head. It has an almost graphic abstracted design with areas of value clearly demarcated. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s all hard edges. Look at the way it disappears into the hair or background in some places.

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the bowLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the bow

Moving down to her hair and fringe (bangs), you can see how Abbéma again changes up the quality of edges, as well as the values, to create a sense of three-dimensionality. Notice that the subject lighting is pretty even and comes from the front and overhead so there’s little shadow change from either side of the face making it harder to show volume. The artist’s attention to the fringe helps with that.

On the right side, the hair looks darker and stands out against the side of the head (but still with a soft edge between skin and hair) whereas, on the left side, the hair and skin are similar in value. Notice too that the hair is blocked in areas of light, middle, and dark and you see almost nary an individual hair! I love those few dark lines dividing some of those shapes.

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the fringe/bangsLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the fringe/bangs

Moving down, let’s have a look at the difference in ear treatment. The left one picks up more of the light yet much of the ear stays in a middle-value range, disappearing into the sin on the side of the face as well as the background. The ear on the right has almost no highlights and although it stays in a middle value, it shows up because of the darker hair around it.

Also have a look at how the girl’s hair – the hair that would be behind her head – disappears into the background both because of value (hair and background are almost one and the same) and the soft edge between them. There’s also very little rendering of what we’d imagine hair to look like in these shapes.

Next, let’s look at the ruffles over her top. I “read” it as ruffles yet there’s very little detail to tell me that. What’s there, does the trick! There’s a beige colour in two values/tones with what looks like a bit of pastel pencil (?) linear work but very little of it.

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the ruffLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the ruff

Moving across the portrait, have a look at the texture and pattern of the clothing. Gatherings and pleats are revealed by a loosely applied mid-value blue/grey that shows shadows, and flat blocks of colour in light blue and a wee bit of light violet to describe the main part of the outfit. Look how the pastel is so loosely applied in the bottom half. You can see small areas of untouched canvas.

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the front of the clothingLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the front of the clothing

Moving up the right side of the portrait, have a quick look at the sleeve. Here it’s very obvious where the canvas is left blank. Also, Abbéma has added some darker grey-blue marks that don’t appear in many other areas of the portrait.

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the right sleeveLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the right sleeve

Moving up, I love the way the shoulder on the right combines hard and soft edges – a hard edge on the right side, a softer edge at the top where the ruff moves over the shoulder to the back. The artist gives a softness to the edge that divides clothing and background so they blend into each other visually.

 Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the right shoulder Louise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the right shoulder

Before we get to the face (I’m leaving the “dessert” for last!), have a look at the neck collar/scarf and see how so much is said with so little. Notice too the areas that seem to disappear – into the blue clothing, into the background. And examine the quality of edge that separates the chin from the clothing.

 Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the collar and chin Louise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the collar and chin

Right! Let’s get to the face. First, a quick reminder of the whole face before we break it down. Ahhh the smoothness of a child’s face – no sign of life-experience wrinkles yet!

Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA - close-up of the face Louise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the face

Starting at the bottom, the lips. Detail and yet hardly any! I love the touch of more saturated red on the right: it suggests the sense of rosebud innocence. Notice too how little of the mouth is outlined, and also, how little shadowing there is.

 Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the mouth Louise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the mouth

And next up, the wee nose. Children don’t have the vertical structure that appears as they develop into adults. This image is a bit blurry but you can still see the difference in colour temperature between the tip of the nose (cool – probably partly as a result of some reflected light from the blue outfit) and the cast shadow (warm).

And finally, we come to the eyes! There’s so much to discover: the colour in the eyes themselves where light reveals that colour, the way the whites of the eyes (not white at all!) slip into the surrounding skin, the darkness in the eyes not just from pupils but also cast shadow from the lids, the emphasis on subtle temperature change (rather than value) to suggest volume in the eyelids, the scantness of eyebrow and brow structure.

 Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA  - close-up of the eyes Louise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – close-up of the eyes

And that’s it!! Let’s have a look at the whole portrait again so you can see all the parts together again. And perhaps you’ll view the portrait a bit differently now. I’ve also included a black and white version for comparison. You can see in the value design that the attention is all on the head!

Louise Abbéma, Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon, no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USALouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA
Louise Abbéma, "Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon," no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA - in black and whiteLouise Abbéma, “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Blue Ribbon,” no date, pastel on canvas, 18 x 15 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA – in black and white

What I also found interesting about this piece is the mix in style between the loose rendering and application of the Impressionists and the more finished look of academic work. 

And now, I’d LOVE to hear from you!

Had you heard of Louise Abbéma before?

And what do you think of this portrait?

Also, was this close-up post helpful?

Let me know by leaving a comment. Let’s get a conversation going!

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. There was something about the attitude of the sitter by Louise Abbéma, if we imagine it more exaggerated and rebellious, that reminded me of Augustus John’s portrait of his son Robin.

Augustus John, "Robin," c.1912, oil on wood, 45.1 x 30.5 cm, Tate Gallery, London, EnglandAugustus John, “Robin,” c.1912, oil on wood, 45.1 x 30.5 cm, Tate Gallery, London, England

PPS. A look at a photograph of Louise Abbéma shows a fringe of similar style to the sitter… 😁

Louise Abbéma in her studio, 1914; Bibliothèque Nationale de FranceLouise Abbéma in her studio, 1914; Bibliothèque Nationale de France