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During the 18th century pastel as a medium for portraiture grew both in popularity and prestige. Extremely versatile, it could be used to depict fine detail or blended to create soft, luminous surfaces. Its ability to convey the smoothness of skin, the intricacy of hair and the textures of silk or velvet was unparalleled. In her portraits of European nobles Rosalba Carriera established pastel as a serious rival to oil. It became the medium of choice for Maurice-Quentin de la Tour and Jean-Etienne Liotard.

In the late 19th century artists again turned to pastel as a medium, expanding its use far beyond portraiture. One of its most significant practitioners was Degas, who from the 1870s onwards increasingly favoured it over paint. In his studies of dancers and women at their toilet he continually refined his compositions by building up layers of colour. Towards the end of his career, the luminosity and tactile immediacy of the pastel medium allowed him to create astonishingly bold works of modern art.