Thoughts on Various Artistic Media: Why Use Pastels, Part 16a

Watteau to Degas

Some time ago we began an exploration of 2D art mediums – oil, acrylic, watercolor, and a lengthy study of lesser known pastel mediums. Let’s go through a quick review first: The pigments used in pastels are the same as those used to produce all colored art media, including oil paintings, although with pastels the binder – the gum arabic – either of a neutral shade and low saturation. The color effect of pastels is closer to natural dry pigments than any other process with a wide range of dry pigment colors. Due to their versatility, once available, pastels quickly found their place in the artist’s toolbox.

The origins of pastel as an artistic medium in its own right go back to northern Italy during the Renaissance: the Tuscan artists Jacopo Bassano and Frederico Barocci; French court artists Jean (father, c. 1485-1541) and François (son, c.1516-1572) Clouet; and Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist who worked in England during the latter part of his life at the court of Henry VII and VIII.

The Baroque era, which lasted for most of the 17th century, included Clouet & Holbein who are at the dawn of this style. A style that is best known for the term “chiaroscuro” or the intense use of contrasting light and dark found in the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, Caravaggio and Vermeer, among others. All of these artists are best known for their works in oil, not pastel.

The last time was devoted to a number of firsts – one of which was an artist by the name of Rosalba Carriera who was mainly known as a pastellist and the first women celebrated by the French Academy, who began to use flat glass. to protect works of art made in pastel, charcoal, watercolor and other works on paper, and which was also the supreme example of the Rococo style, the style that defined the 17th century. Carriera was welcomed into the royal courts of France (Louis XV), Vienna (Holy Roman Empire Charles VI), Poland (Augustus III) and England (George III). George III collected her works, although she had never traveled there. And, of course, Carriera was loved in her hometown of Venice. Additionally, aside from those Carriera taught, worked alongside, and commissioned with, Carriera’s technical influence continues to this day with improvements she made to the way pastel sticks were formed. , allowing general access to the growing middle classes. Name recognition faded with his death and the end of the Rococo era, but his influence is still there.

During the Rococo period and the lives of Carriera and another great contemporary pastellist, Watteau, Europe and the Americas saw the end of the Age of Kings and the rise of the middle classes and the Age of Enlightenment. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was a decade younger than Carriera and died during his brief but influential stay at the Court of France. Watteau is best known for his colorful and vibrant painting style that recalls the Mannerist tradition of Corregio and Rubens. His career began as the ornate Baroque style declined and the charming and more naturalistic Rococo style favored by Carriera and Watteau was winning admirers.

Chardin, portrait of his son

During the Rococo period and during the lifetime of Carriera (1673-1757) and one of his contemporary pastellists, Watteau, another remarkable pastellist appeared at the French court by the name of Chardin. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) was 25 years younger than Carriera and died shortly before the French Revolution.

Self-portrait in pastel by Chardin

While Watteau is best known for his colorful and vibrant painting style that recalls the Mannerist tradition of Corregio and Rubens, Chardin was known for his works in the Flemish tradition. His still lifes and genre scenes depicting everyday life, including maids, children, and domestic activities, and later his pastels – mostly portraits – were popular. Watteau’s compositions were carefully balanced with softly diffused light and had a rough impasto surface.

The central focus of the Western art world has often been Paris, and it was certainly at the forefront of the growing use of pastel as a medium, with the three artists above being key figures in the French movement. Meanwhile, Holbein had preceded John Russell to England and the famous 19th-century American portrait painter John Singleton Copley, who also occasionally used pastel. In France, pastel was too closely linked to the monarchy and it lost its favor in the first years of the Revolution, but the medium was too strongly anchored in the Academy and the French art world to disappear completely. In the mid-1800s, Delacroix and Millet were again working with pastel and experimenting with the medium. Then came Edgar Degas, an innovative pastellist whose works had lasting popularity and influence.

Degas, Bellelli family, 1860

Just as Rosalba Carriera took pastels beyond traditional use for preliminary drawing with her accomplished portraits, Degas further transformed pastels into a major and well-recognized artistic medium. Soon other great artists like Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec experimented with pastel. They remain even today among the most famous users of pastel.

Fast forward to France in the mid-1800s, Delacroix and Millet worked in pastel and experimented with the medium. Then came Edgar Degas, an innovative pastellist whose use of the medium transformed him into a major artistic medium. Born in Paris in July 1834 and dying there 83 years later, Edgar Degas, son of a French banker and a Creole mother of Haitian origin, very early on showed an aptitude for drawing and painting. At 18, Degas was authorized to study and copy works at the Louvre. This experience, combined with three years of studying and painting in Italy, has led to a permanent respect for classical proportions and lines, even on his most abstract / modern pieces. Her early works were in the style of the university history school, illustrated by works like “Jephtha’s Daughter” – a biblical scene. Soon, academic work was replaced by empirical experience and areas of interest with an emphasis on racetrack stages and working women – milliners, laundresses, then ballet dancers. Dancers and horses are subjects for which he remains the most noticed.

Degas forged a relationship with artist Edouard Manet based on their evolving understanding of art. They shared a mutual contempt for the Salon, the group of French artists and university professors who controlled the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1868 Degas, Manet, along with Renoir, Monet and Sisley formed a group of avant-garde artists who became known as the Impressionists. Over the next 12 years (circa 1870s), the Impressionists held eight such exhibitions, with Degas exhibiting in all of them. During those years he focused on backstage or rehearsal dancers, emphasizing their professionalism and hard work. Although Degas’s works are not an explicit social commentary, they reflect social and economic changes and describe the growing bourgeois class and the service economy and the entry of women into the workplace. Degas often chose his perspective to capture movement, for example by capturing a random gaze from the viewer into the orchestra pit with ballet dancers beyond. Such a view is a valid definition of “Impressionism”.

Degas moved from traditional subjects to dancers and laundresses, interested in how their occupations were reflected in their dress, style of movement and body type. He soon adds a third theme to his repertory café life. All three themes sold well, providing much needed income as her family faced bankruptcy. His change of subject was reflected in the shift to bright colors and bold brushstrokes as opposed to the dark palette of his earlier works (influenced by his love of the Dutch masters). His compositions became more dramatic, using unusual angles, focal point placement and often freezing action, reflecting the influence of the new medium of photography.

In the mid-1870s Degas returned to printmaking, producing over 300 monotypes (monotypes are a single print created from a plate) and these resulted from his fascination with the effects that monotypes can create and he has often reworked his images printed with pastels.

Degas, Pastel dancers

As Degas’ style matured, it evolved from a classical influenced realism to a more abstract style. Degas’s work continued to reflect his exceptional drawing / linearity ability and love of the figure, but otherwise these works bear little resemblance to his early pieces. His works remained deliberate at every step, as Degas himself explained, “No art has ever been less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of the reflection and study of the great masters; inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I don’t know anything. ”

While Degas lived in the second decade of the 20th century his painting production declined, but he remained a tireless self-promoter and avid art collector as well as an influencer of several great modern artists, including Pablo Picasso. . Yet the sheer beauty of his early works and the intentional modernity of his later portraits guaranteed Degas’ place among leading artists.

Janet Cornacchio is a member of the Front Street Art Gallery, president of the Scituate Arts Association and real estate agent. You can contact her at [email protected]

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