The name Edgar Degas is forever synonymous with pastel, but he was not the only French Impressionist to be utilizing the medium. Édouard Manet, whom Degas first meets while copying a Velazquez painting at the Louvre, did a considerable amount of work in pastel. Some of the best examples are on display alongside Degas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Manet & Degas: The two men shared much in common: Both were from aristocratic Parisian families and neither had been highly influenced by the popular en plein air movement going on at the time. They were also closely linked to what would become known as the “Impressionist Movement” of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, yet their work expressed their own artistic aesthetics. They greatly admired each other’s works but also expressed very different opinions on politics and philosophy. To look at their pastel works hanging next to each other, it is easy to see very different techniques of application. Degas’ pastels often relate more to drawing, while Manet’s seem more akin to painting.
Is it Drawing or Painting? Defining works in pastel as drawings or paintings is always a touchy subject. Sadly, I believe that many artists consider drawing to be of a lesser caliber than painting. My definition of what designates a drawing or painting is based more in technique/attitude than on the products used. Is the use of line and mark-making or is the blending of shapes and edges, which is easily facilitated with wet paint, more important to the final outcome? Using this definition: To draw is to make marks (governed by line), and to paint is to smear (governed by shapes). Some media make one approach easier to accomplish than the other, but any medium can be utilized to do either.
When looking at the Manets, it was not always clear that they were pastels until you moved in closer. It was also of note that most were executed on primed canvas, which accentuated the painterly appearance. During the timeframe that these were produced, it would have been a white lead oil-primed canvas versus the popular acrylic primers of today. Finely woven (portrait grade) oil-primed canvas has a beautiful tooth and is still available today from major art retails. There is no need to stretch it in advance of painting, it can be taped to a drawing board in the same manner as other paper grounds, and will be framed under glass like other pastels.
Pastel on Canvas: If you plan on experimenting with pastel on canvas, I recommend testing how individual brands of pastel react to the surface. My research has shown that softer brands of pastel work best and the initial layers of pastel can be smeared and fixed to add tooth with a good grade of workable pastel fixative.
Édouard Manet allowed sections of the white canvas ground to show through, and his technique of pastel application was very similar to his traditional oil works. His personality was that of a painter, and it showed through whether a pastel stick or a brush was in his hand.
According to the notes about the portrait by Manet, above, on The Met’s website: This pastel, executed in one sitting, depicts the Irish critic and novelist George Moore. He used it as the frontispiece for his book Modern Painting (1893), noting that as “a fresh-complexioned, fair-haired young man, the type most suitable to Manet’s palette, [the artist] at once asked [him] to sit.” Critics ridiculed this work when it was exhibited in 1880, calling it “Le Noyé repêché” (the drowned man fished out of the water). The picture is Manet’s only completed portrait of Moore; one of his unfinished canvases, George Moore at the Café (55.193), is also in the museum’s collection.
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS