Exposition au musée

Pastel paintings, from Millet to Redon

From March 14th to July 02nd, 2023
Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer
La Femme à la médaille, en 1896
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork

Neither truly drawing, nor painting, pastel is a distinct graphic technique that brings together line and colour. The vibration of the “bloom” of pigments formed at the surface of the support provides a direct connection to the material and pure colour that stimulates the eye and appeals to the senses.

The art of pastel is multifaceted, from undulating to striped lines and hatching, when the pigment is not concentrated in a flat area or shaded by blending. As it is so versatile, it is particularly suitable for rendering skin’s velvetiness, and creating textured and trompe-l’œil effects.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - salle d'introduction
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - salle d'introduction
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

The technique, which was very popular in the 18th century with Rosalba Carriera, Maurice Quentin de la Tour or Chardin, all referred to as “pastel painters”, became outmoded before enjoying a real renaissance in the middle of the 19th century. It broke free of portraiture and broadened out to be used for any subject, as shown in this exhibition of ninety-five of the most notable works in the musée d’Orsay collection.

Sociabilities

Pastel flourished in the 17th century and earned its reputation in the 18th, traditionally considered to be its golden age. A medium like no other for creating textured effects and rendering the softness of skin, it was then almost exclusively used for portraits. Having been set aside during the French Revolution, it made a strong comeback during the second half of the 19th century, which revived portraiture, which the bourgeoisie, eager to assert its new position in society, was particularly partial to.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Sociabilités
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Sociabilités
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

Pastel artists like Émile Lévy, Jacques-Émile Blanche, or Louise Breslau joined in the tradition of grand manner portraits with the intent of rivalling oil painting. They used the extraordinary versatility of the technique to emphasize the richness of interiors or the finesse of fabrics, whereas Manet, for example, favoured head- and-shoulder portraits and simplified lines to capture the typical “Parisienne” woman.

Land and Sea

In the middle of the 19th century, the use of pastel extended to all genres. Jean-François Millet used it to represent the greatness of rural life, as in his paintings. Some critics, like Joris-Karl Huysmans, actually preferred his pastels to his oils: “with the pastel artist, painting solitude, one finds an allusory, aching artist, a master of the earth who has felt nature at certain times and has … gravely, eloquently rendered it”.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Terre et mer
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Terre et mer
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

If Millet was a pioneer, he was not however the only one to take an interest in rural workers. The choice of these new subjects coincided with the time when, in the wake of the industrial revolution, the rural exodus was exacerbated. The nostalgia of an ancestral way of living that had hitherto seemed eternal started to emerge. The labour of harvesters and fishermen was either portrayed in a heroic or picturesque way. Many pastel artists were struck by the traditional clothes and headwear of Breton women, and sought to immortalise them in their gleaming royal blue, bright yellow, and white.

Modernities

For the poet Emile Verhaeren the 19th century was that of the “sprawling towns”, which developed proportionally as the countryside emptied. The urban population, cityscape, workers’ life, leisure society and the world of entertainment provided new subjects in abundance for Impressionists. In rejection of History painting, their quest for truth made them observers of daily life. Pastel became a favoured technique for capturing this world in motion. Eugène Boudin, of whom Monet said he had opened his eyes, showed them the way with his open air studies, “sketched so fast and so faithfully from what is the most variable, the most elusive in its form and colour”, according to Charles Baudelaire.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Modernités
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Modernités
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

Although Degas executed a few pastel landscapes, he took even more of an interest in women’s labour, which prompted the Goncourt brothers to say in their Journal that this “artist who is enfatuated with all things modern” has set “[…] his sights on washerwomen and dancers”. He observed them tirelessly in their daily activities, at a distance, and without making judgments on their social status.

The Essence of Nature

As pastels do not take up much space they can be easily carried and are suited to working in the open air. Combining line and colour in a single tool, they are perfect for transcribing the atmospheric changes and light effects at speed. The landscape in pastel found its origins at the start of the 19th century. When Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun visited Switzerland in 1807, she found the country delightful and reported that she had done “about two hundred landscapes in pastel”. Delacroix also sketched skies in pastel, and Eugène Boudin, who Corot called “king of the skies”, followed in his footsteps. Yet for them these works were not intended for show but considered as studies or souvenirs.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Essence de la nature
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Essence de la nature
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

Pastel artists like Pierre Prins, Ernest Duez, or Henri Gervex applied themselves to the school of nature, to the motif, with the same goal of being true to life as Boudin and the Impressionists. They produced highly spirited pastels, with a vigorous handling. But the very substance of the fragile, ephemeral medium, and its propensity for creating soft surfaces, can also endow landscape with a strange ethereal aspect that symbolist artists such as Lévy-Dhurmer and Rippl-Ronaï took advantage of.

Interiors

The domestic sphere features among the new subjects pastel artists broached in the final decades of the 19th century. Portraits also become more private and informal, often reflecting a mood. With household and family life being at the centre of bourgeois values, artists turned their attention to scenes of daily life and interiors. These subjects were especially prevalent in works by women artists who, in the context of the time, were still widely associated with domestic life. This phenomenon was emphasised by the reputation of “cleanliness” and the ease of using pastel, still considered to be a leisure art that particularly suited women, until the 1880s – when it enjoyed unprecedented popularity with all artists: “Pastel can be taken up and left aside, maintaining all the freshness of its lustre and the bloom of its velvetiness throughout the work process” (the Grande Encyclopédie, 1885). It became the medium of choice to create snapshots of daily life.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Intérieurs
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Intérieurs
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

Behind Closed Doors

Pastel, above all other media, seems the best suited to render the velvety quality of skin and subtle hues of complexion. This characteristic naturally explains why it is so popular in the art of portraiture, but also in that of the nude. Édouard Manet, Maurice Denis and Émile-René Ménard used blending to give a powdery glow to their models’ skin, whereas Degas opted for a wide variety of lines and vivid colours to give relief to bathing women in prosaic postures, without idealising their bodies.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Intimités
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Intimités
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

Degas slips into the intimacy of these women at their ablutions without knowing that they are being observed, which leads him to compare them to modern fellow sisters of Susanna, the Old Testament’s heroine secretly watched by old men, the Elders. If some of his bathers seem observed through a door left ajar, others are seen through bold high-angle views. Head-and-shoulders nudes by Manet and Aman-Jean are altogether different, the former maintaining our gaze, and the latter showing awareness that she is being observed.

Arcadia

The 19th century is marked by political instability and deep societal change. The industrial revolution and fast expansion of railways disrupted the perception of time and space. The fear of a collapse of civilisation akin to that of the Roman Empire emerged towards the end of the century. In response to this crisis of values and in reaction against the prevailing materialism, some artists rejected contemporary subjects to turn towards arcadian idealism, an ancient dream of a simple life, in harmony with nature, untouched by time.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Arcadies
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Arcadies
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

An artist like Osbert, who wanted to “achieve Simplicity itself, supreme Silence”, developed a pantheistic, mystical vision filled with muses, that formed the foundation stone of his œuvre. It is quite the opposite in Degas’ art, the theme of women bathers on the grass and of a potential symbiosis with nature being truly atypical. Finally, with Desvallières and Rothenstein, the idyllic land of Arcadia is not without strangeness and a sense of foreboding, as if shaken by the first quakes of the approaching 20th century.

Souls and Chimeras

The path leading to a utopian Arcadia is not the only one followed by artists little inclined to hold up a mirror to the transfigured world of the 19th century. Odilon Redon and Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer were both in search for inner truth, and used pastel to give shape to their rich imagination, each using their own visual vocabulary. After Millet and Degas, this “chameleon” medium was once again reinvented by these two great pastellists at the end of the century.

Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Âmes et chimères
Pastels, de Millet à Redon - Âmes et chimères
© Sophie Crepy / musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

For Lévy-Dhurmer, inner life was often explored through portraiture and the human figure, including when representing hybrid beings like his famous Medusa. As for Redon, he used the extraordinary plasticity of pastel to give form to his imagination, and breathe a personal dimension into myths, far from allegory. His art rested on indetermination, with a desire to let himself be guided by materials.