Historical Foundations of Pastel

Roughly pastel began 250 years ago, although colored chalks have been used for thousands of years. Prehistoric cave paintings in southern France, Spain and South Africa show that man's early colored paintings used red, white, and ochre earth pigments, and burnt bone. Italian Renaissance Masters used red chalk to do architectural end engineering drawings. A work survives by Guido Reni 1575-1642, who produced the earliest paintings in a variety of colored chalks.

Pastel history centers around France. Rosalba Carreira, born in Venice in 1675, became the first popular painter of the new medium. Recognized in Italy, she was the first to master the new medium, becoming the most fashionable pastelist in Paris. She used rubbing and blending, with a soft and delicate feeling. After Carreira died, pastels were still popular in Europe. Jean Etienne Liotard, originally from Switzerland, did remarkably textured society portraits.

Maurice Quentin de La Tour 1704-1788, a great name in pastels, studied in Paris. His works were unpolished, not soft or delicate. His work showed competence, clarity, detail and freedom. Many pastelists emulated his frenzy of brilliant colors and textures. He gave pastel a new range and a rage that lasted four decades. Idol of thousands of Parisians, he inspired such painters as Watteau and Perroneau. Thanks to La Tour, pastel was equated with oil. Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin 1699-1779, a highly studied and admired pastel painter, did subject matter of common kitchen utensils, bowls, cups, fruit, bread, rabbits and fish. In middle age, he gave in and painted oils. When he returned to pastels, he did an exquisite portrait of his wife. Pastel had no equal for freshness and spontaneity, and 75 years would pass before pastels would again rise in popularity.

From that period: Jean-Francois Millet, 1814-1875, lived only in the country, painting poor laborers and shepherds with flocks. He was also a superb oil painter, but his pastels, intimately described community life..

By the end of the 1860's, art was again changing...replaced by impressionism. Edouard Manet, 1832-1883, battled public opinion, opposed the academy and worked with free strokes and loose handling. His full figures, devoid of background were considered radical, but a sign post to point the way for the new painters. In a year he accepted the new doctrine of light and air being developed by Monet, Pissarro and others. Of the original 30 members, Camille Pissarro 1830-1903, and Alfred Sisley 1839-1899 chose to paint only with this discipline of early impressionism. Cezanne boldly advanced, while recognition gradually declined for the others.

Renoir, temporarily abandoned impressionism, but later returned, combining discipline with color, light and atmosphere in such paintings as "Les Canotiers". Aggressive strokes and colors were the hallmarks of this pastel period. They were thinly applied to approximate cool atmospheric colors and emulate the transparency and sparkle of light. Edgar Degas 1834-1917-- remains the most important pastel painter we can study. He greatly advanced pastel's total range of effects. Degas was fascinated by the camera, cropping effects, Japanese woodcuts by masters Hokasai and Hiroshigek, flattened compositions, asymmetry and bright colors. Working to make his colors luminescent, he experimented with crosshatching, paints and pastel; he combined pastel with every medium, and surfaces of paper, cardboard and canvas. He mixed pastels with gouache and watercolor, and steamed them to soften pigments. With brushes, he manipulated colors and mediums, dipping pastels into prepared solutions and fixing each of the layers. He popularized the use and advanced the knowledge of fixatives. He drew and painted at the same time, constructing pictures, and enhancing illustration. Blindness finished his work in 1892. Degas pushed the envelope of pastel usage. Because of him, pastel was no longer considered a pale, pallid medium.

Other pastel visionaries were soon to follow. Odilon Radon, a contemporary of Degas, whose work was labeled post-impressionism, painted his subtle textures and strokes. His subject matter was personal visions, fantasies, dreams and figures. His beautiful florals, mostly imagined, are his enduring legacy.

Ruth Henshaw 1772-1830, A primitive portrait artist from Massachusetts, created dramatic effects as she drew, using light from a candle to produce a silhouette accented by a simple pencil line.

The first American who could compete with the proficient Europeans, studied in Europe. James McNeil Whistler, of Massachusetts, attended classes at The Imperial Academy of Fine arts in Russia. Upon his father's death, he returned to America and went to West Point. When he was expelled, he left America, never to return again. Although he studied in Paris, his manners and temperament were strictly American.

Too interested in artistic problems to flatter his sitters, he was not a good colorist or draftsman. After he won his suit against art critic, John Ruskin, he was financially ruined. The city of Venice hired him to do a series of etchings. He meandered around the city with pastel while doing his commissions of etchings. He did 50 wonderful pastels. Whistler and his mother were well known. Other important pastelists of the period around 1898, were The American Ten--founded by J. Aldan Weir, John Twachtman, William Merritt Chase, Ernest Lawson and Child Hassam. Perhaps the Americans never reached prominence because they lacked daring, and failed to experiment. They tended more to the academic and illustrative and less to the explorative in their art. Childe Hassam,1859-1935--stayed in Paris several times. He was most noted for flag motifs and local scenes of New York City.

Mary Cassatt, more European than American went to see La Tour's work. Associated with impressionists, she exhibited with them for the first time. She was an excellent draftswoman, doing inspired pastel portraits of mothers and children.She repeatedly used the same models, seeking a feeling of intimacy. Much admired, she created rounded forms with straight strokes. As she promoted the impressionists in the USA, counseling the Havermeyer family on art purchases of paintings for public and private galleries, it was clear that Impressionism had found its best friend and promoter.

Today, we have places that encourage painters in pastel, and a whole roster of famous men and women who work in the medium. Among the organizations that have launched the "new Renaissance of Pastel" are The Pastel Society of America in New York City, the many important regional/national pastel societies such as The Pastel Society of the West Coast, The Degas Pastel Society, The Pastel Society of the Southeast, Pastel Society of the Southwest, the Pastel Society of North Florida, The Pastel Society of the Northwest, and The Pastel Society of Oregon. Other factors, publishers and organizations are The International Association of Pastel Societies, the proliferation of websites such as APOW, the manufacture of new lines of pastel, coverage in The Artist's Magazine and American Artist, and the publication of fine pastel books by North Light/ F&W Publications, Watson-Guptill and Rockport Publishers. Finally, with the proliferation of pastel, has come its monetary and cultural acceptance. It's the most permanent of all the mediums in existence. Its intrinsic beauty is without peer.

© 1998, Madlyn-Ann C. Woolwich

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