Mystery and Glitter. Pastels in the Musée d'Orsay.

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What is pastel?

Odilon RedonFantaisie© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Pastel is a solidified, coloured powder, which first appeared in the 15th century. The pastel stick is made by blending ground, dry pigment with a little clean water containing clay or chalk, and with a binder (gum Arabic is often used). The resulting paste is then drained using a cloth, before being cut up, whilst still damp, into sticks, which are then allowed to dry naturally.
Although limited at first, more colours gradually appear. With the arrival of synthetic colours in the mid-nineteenth century, the range increased considerably.

As a technique for dry colouring, pastel requires a slightly rough textured support to provide a "tooth". However, the adhesion to the support is fragile, so the best way to protect it is to place it under glass, avoiding any direct contact.
At first, pastel was used to give extra colour to black chalk, sanguine chalk and silverpoint portraits, but gradually pastel became established in its own right.

Edouard ManetPortrait of Irma Brunner© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

 

The huge success of portraits in pastel of Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1674-1757) started a fashion for this medium. Liotard, Perronneau and Chardin established its credentials, whilst Quentin de La Tour raised it to a rare level of perfection. Aristocrats and the wealthy middle classes were fascinated to see themselves painted so realistically from life, to see everything captured: texture effects, skin tones and psychology, missing nothing.

Rescued from oblivion

pastel
Edgar DegasAt the Milliner's© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The French Revolution, which brought private commissions to a swift halt, and the Neo-Classicism of the early nineteenth century, intent on heroic paintings, had the upper hand over pastel for a short time. But after this eclipse, the sensitivity of Romantics like Delacroix contributed to its revival.

Despite its rediscovery by a few artists, pastel continued to be seen as an art worthy for "girls' boarding schools". In 1885, in an effort to bring pastels to a wider audience, several artists and devotees founded a Society of French Pastellists, whose aim was to organise exhibitions devoted specifically to this medium. Pastel was successfully revived: "Art lovers once again adore it", noted the art critic Félix Fénéon, who also confirmed a vast increase in subjects.

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