Portrait of Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne and his wife Geneviève , Nicolas de Plattemontage, 1677 © The Trustees of the British Museum

This exhibition of French portrait drawings has drowned from notable holdings of the British Museum. Pieces of French portrait drawings were chosen to explain the development of this medium from the Renaissance until the 19th century in France. The exhibition also presented some French portrait drawings that have never been exhibited before.

The portraits showcased here offered a short range of personal records of patrons, friends and loved ones. The posers were depicted in informal moments of their lives, which were not always permitted according to the conventions ruling the portraiture at that time.

Throughout its history, the drawn portrait has been primarily an informal medium. It was made to be exchanged between friends and relations of the sitter, rather than the wider public intended for official painted portraits. Usually executed in chalk, pen or graphite, drawings were also more affordable to produce. Artists often turned to chalk or watercolour to depict members of their own families, or to experiment with original concepts of portraiture.

At the British Museum exhibition, portraits on paper have been displayed alongside examples in other more formal media, including medals, enamels and an onyx cameo.

Artists turned to drawing to depict not only patrons but also to their own families and circles of friends. The gradually more democratic nature of portraiture can be seen here, as kings and artists are joined by wealthy travellers, artisans and hedonistic members of the high society.

The exhibition started with drawings by Francois Clouet, which offered an affectionate image of the 16th century French Renaissance court. It closed with Toulouse Lautrec’s vibrant portraits of the Parisian demimonde. Clouet’s drawn portraits of courtiers and the royal family were commissioned by the French queen Catherine de’ Medici, and his portrait of Catherine herself was on display for the first time. The exhibition also included a drawing of Catherine’s husband Henri II, one of the first representations of Henri as king, which formed the basis of his royal iconography.

Other portraits made in chalk or watercolour in the 18th and 19th century offered a uniquely personal glimpse into artists’ personal lives. Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune used chalk to draw his infant daughter, in about 1772, creating a delightfully naturalistic record of childhood. The piece demonstrates how the drawn portrait allowed for a degree of familiarity and intimacy than that which had been common in portrait paintings from the same period. Another example of family portraiture is by the lesser known 19th-century artist Albert Lebourg, depicting his wife and mother in-law in smoky atmospheric black chalk.

Drawings were cheaper to produce than an oil painting or sculpture and allowed the artist greater freedom for creativity. The flexibility of the form also allowed artists to experiment with unusual effects or innovative forms. In this way both sitters and artists could subvert the traditional notion of portraiture.

Pierre Dumonstier made a playful ‘portrait’ of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s hand in 1625. This piece plays with the very notion of what a ‘portrait’ is, through focusing on the quality that makes a sitter unique – not Artemisia’s face, in this instance, but her hand, the source of her artistic brilliance. Another example of artistic experimentation can be seen in Henri Fantin-Latour’s sheet of self-portrait studies from 1876. Here the artist shows himself, rather playfully, from behind a portrait without a face.

The exhibition “French portrait drawings from Clouet to Courbet” was at the British Museum, London, from 8th September 2016 until 29th January 2017.