“The Touch of Color: Pastels at the National Gallery of Art” traces how this highly versatile medium in which a single stroke creates both color and line, was used in the creation of a variety of artworks. Along the way, in each century in this exhibit, are works by significant women artists who were pastelists.
While the earliest use of pastel was by Renaissance artists in creating preparatory sketches for paintings, like Jacopo Bassano’s “The Mocking of Christ” (1568), by the 18th century, pastel head studies, like Benedetto Luti’s “Head of a Bearded Man” (1715), had become popular.
Pastel—which refers both to the medium and the artwork—was especially loved for presenting flawless complexions and ephemeral moments. When women artists of the 18th-century had limited opportunities, pastel was considered suitable for them for it was “preferable to their soiling their fair hands with painting in colors in oil.” Pastels were a fashionable art for decorating women’s spaces. Touted for amateur female artists, it could “rescue young women from the tedium of solitude.” Especially for female artists were a range of colors in pastel for subjects like “flowers, figures and landscapes.”
Rosalba Carriera was well regarded by royalty and the nobility for both her delicate portraits and allegorical subjects, as in her “Allegory of Painting” (1730s). A critic described her work as being superior to oil painting for “the strength and truth of colors,” with “a certain freshness and lightness of touch.” Travelers who flocked to her studio in Venice would spread the demand for pastels throughout Europe and to Britain.
Parisian painter Adélaïde Labille–Guiard was also a highly successful pastelist. “A Fashionable Noblewoman Wearing a Plumed Hat” (1789) is a fine example of her work. On blue laid paper mounted on canvas, her work is placed with paintings rather than with works on paper.
Portraits of royalty, a popular theme, was out after the French Revolution. In the late 1870s, in France there was a revival of pastel. While Maurice Quentin de la Tour’s “Claude Dupouch” (1739) would continue to be critically admired for capturing the immediate moment of a fleeting expression, artists would change dramatically in their choice of subjects and their style. Drawings by Jean–François Millet from a private collection like “Calling Home the Cows” (c. 1866), with its dark tones and heavy contours for rendering humble peasants and shepherds, was exhibited after his death in 1875. Pastel works which had once been considered like oil paintings and framed under glass, were now more likely considered as a work on paper.
One of the most prominent woman artists of the 19th century was Mary Cassatt. Upon seeing pastels by Edgar Degas in a gallery window, she would be inspired early in her career to turn to impressionism. She would work with Degas for over a decade, using pastels in a variety of ways.
The greatest number of Edgar Degas’ works are pastels, several of which are on display in this exhibit. While Claude Monet’s pastels are rare, included is his “Waterloo Bridge” (1901), where he captures the light and color that he would later create in his paintings.
James McNeill Whistler is one of most influential American pastelists. His works on brown paper, with a few strokes of black and delicate color, were highly praised by one critic as if it were “by pure magic.” In contrast is William Merritt Chase’s spectacular work,
“Study of Flesh” (1888), and like Childe Hassam’s “Au Grand Prix de Paris (At the Grand Prix de Paris)” (1887), one that evokes, the velvety quality of earlier 18th-century works.
By the 20th century, pastel no longer had the constraints of material or subjects placed on it by previous artists and critics. One of Matisse’s rare works in pastel, “Woman with an Exotic Plant,” is noted for being coated with sawdust. American artist Everett Shinn’s “Fifth Avenue Bus, 23rd Street and Broadway” (1914), uses its flaky quality in his snowy scene. George Luks’ “Breadline” (1900) is a grim realistic scene of life. Jasper Johns used a variety of paper, pastel and graphite on gray Japanese paper, used pastel on unprimed muslin on paperboard or gray Japanese paper for their pastels.
Jeanne Rij-Rousseau, a Cubist artist noted for developing a philosophy which relates color and musical sound waves, added charcoal, black crayon to pastel on maroon paper. Her 1920s work “Abstraction” is very far from the themes in pastel works throughout this exhibit, again emphasizing the versatility of pastel.
On display are one of Mary Cassatt’s boxes of pastels along with an 1890 manual and a variety of chalks, crayons and sticks.
Due to the fragility of the material, pastel works seldom travel to be in exhibits, so that these works on display from the NGA’s collection present a rare viewing opportunity. Careful examination of the details in each work will surely enhance the appreciation of the medium, but what will remain in memory of the fleeting fragile works are that they are such a pleasure to see.