Poetic Pastels | 19th-Century History and 21st-Century Exhibition

There’s a buzz in Cincinnati as the art exhibition “Degas, Renoir, and Poetic Pastels” has just recently opened at the treasured Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). “Not only are the works by these renowned artists placed in their historical context, but issues of conservation and materials are addressed as well,” says Esther Bell, curator of European Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture at the CAM. In the current issue of Pastel Journal (October 2013), Bell’s feature article highlights the 19th-century history of pastels, and I’m honored to share with you the following excerpt:

In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Portrait of Mlle Jeanne Samary, the stumped pastel creates a delicate, ephemeral beauty. The composition juxtaposes carefully and tediously worked passages of thick pastel with the rapidly sketched, wispy feathers of Samary’s fan and discrete touches of pigment to indicate the blushed décolletage of her chest and the piercing blue of her eyes.

Portrait of Mlle Jeanne Samary by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Portrait of Mlle Jeanne Samary (c. 1878; pastel, 27 7/16 x 18 3/4) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of Mary Hanna, 1946.107

Although he knew many of its members, Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) never exhibited with the Société des Pastellistes Français (founded in 1885 to “develop and encourage the art of pastel, principally by the organization of exhibitions”). Arguably, however, no other artist in the 19th century pushed the boundaries of the pastel medium to such daring effect. Among his many techniques (sometimes bewildering to modern-day conservators and curators) was the use of fixative between layers of pastel, allowing colors to be superimposed without compromising their brilliant hues.

Dancer in Her Dressing Room by Edgar Degas

Dancer in Her Dressing Room (c. 1879; pastel and peinture à l’essence on canvas, 34 5/8 x 15 7/8) by Edgar Degas, Cincinnati Art Museum, bequest of Mary Hanna, 1956.114)

In the 1870s, Degas experimented with combining pastel powder with fixative, resulting in a thick paste-like material that could be manipulated for either a thick, impasto-like effect or for a thin, watery quality. Sometimes he would moisten passages by adding liquid or steam. Conservator Anne Maheux from Library and Archives Canada has noted that the numerous technical references and recipes found throughout Degas’ notebooks, as well as his correspondence with other artists, indicate his commitment to constant experimentation with the material aspects of his art. In Dancer in Her Dressing Room (left), Degas combines pastel and peinture à l’essence, a process in which oil paint is diluted with turpentine and added over the pastel. This technique results in the watery, more painterly quality of passages such as the dancer’s legs.

According to Maheux, Degas also used mixtures of pastel and gouache to heighten the impressions of his monotypes. He first explored the process under the supervision of his friend, engraver Ludovic Lepic, probably in the mid-1870s. The image would be created with an oily ink on a metal or glass plate that he would rub, scrape, blot and ultimately run through the press. The single, or mono, impression would then provide the basis for the larger composition that he would rework with pastel. ~Esther Bell 

I simply can’t wait to get to the CAM and view these paintings in person (even handling the digital versions for this newsletter is surreal), as Degas is one of my favorite artists. It’s an honor for all of us at ArtistsNetwork and Pastel Journal to share stories like this with you. Read Bell’s full article in the October issue, and subscribe today for continuous information and instruction on the medium. “Degas, Renoir, and Poetic Pastels” runs through January 19–visit and let us know your impression!

Until next time,

Cherie Haas, online editor**Click here to subscribe to the Artists Network newsletter for inspiration, instruction, and more!



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