Home > Art History, Uncategorized > Art History: Five 18th Century Pastels

Art History: Five 18th Century Pastels

Having found a kind of pastel I like has forced me to reconsider the pastel medium.  I did not like how pastels handled when I was younger, they were too soft and fragile; I felt they would blow away if someone breathed on them too hard.  Paint was superior because it was sturdy.  My younger self could not understand why anyone would invest their efforts into something that could be annihilated by a sneeze.

During a recent heavy snow, I entrenched myself back into the halls of MAIC and went specifically through the area with works on paper in the European galleries.  I took my time and took a long hard look at the pastels on display.  Doing this made me realize that despite the fragility of the medium, there were also advantages to pastels.  The matte nature of pastels and the ease of blending colors make them perfectly suited to skin tones.  Oil paint is inherently glossy, especially varnished, or can crack over time; thus pastels have an advantage in portraying more realistic skin tones.  It comes as no surprise that pastels have long been a favorite medium of portrait artists.


A Young Lady With a Parrot by Rosalba Carriera, Pastel on blue laid paper, mounted on laminated paper board, Italian, c. 1730

The museum placard for the Rosalba Carriera portrait has a lot of interesting historical information:

In 1720 the great financier and collector Pierre Crozat persuaded the renown Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera to visit him in Paris.  Her one-year stay earned her immediate admission to the French Academy and the reputation of having brought the art of pastel portraiture to France.  This vivacious pastel demonstrates the style and technique for which Carreira was famous: exquisite details of flowers, lace, and jewelry, executed with wet chalk; a vaporous hint of diaphanous materials, created in a dry manner; and the poised yet piquant suggestiveness of the young woman’s pose, which captures the spirit of the Rococo as it would develop in France.

Boy With a Carrot by Francois Boucher, Pastel of buff laid paper, French, 1738

Another advantage over pastels is the simple fact that they are dry media; there is no timeline to working with them, unlike paints which dry at varying speeds.  A work can be more easily reworked over a long period of time and this is advantageous for portraying detail.  I love the fabrics, lace and pearls in the double portrait below.

Portrait of Phillipe Coypel and His Wife by Charles-Antoine Coypel, Pastel on blue laid paper, pieced, laid down on canvas, and stretched on a wood stretcher, French, 1742

Portrait of Marthe-Marie Tronchin by Jean-Etienne Liotard, Pastel on vellum, Swiss, 1758/61

Portrait of Madame Chardin by Jean-Siméon Chardin, Pastel on blue paper, mounted on canvas, French, 1776

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Categories: Art History, Uncategorized
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