Thoughts on Various Art Mediums: Why Use Pastel, Part 17


Some time ago we began an exploration of two-dimensional artistic media – oil, acrylic, watercolor and a long study of the lesser-known media of pastel. Now let’s go ahead and start with a review: the pigments used in pastels are the same pigments used to produce all colored art media, including oil paints, albeit with pastels , the binder – gum arabic – is of a neutral and weak hue. saturation. The color effect of pastels is closer to natural dry pigments than any other process with a wide range of dry pigment colors. Given their versatility, once they became available, pastels quickly found a place in the artist’s toolbox.

The origins of pastels as an artistic medium in its own right can be traced back to northern Italy during the Renaissance: to date, we have reviewed Renaissance and Mannerist pastel artists, including Da Vinci; The Tuscan artists Jacopo Bassano and Frederico Barocci, and the French Court artists Jean (father, c.1485-1541) and François (son, c.1516-1572) Clouet (all these artists are best known for their oil works , not pastel.) Then we spent time on a number of firsts – an artist best known as a pastellist and one of the first women celebrated by the French Academy – Rosalba Carriera. Carriera began using flat glass to protect works of art – pastel, charcoal, watercolor and other works on paper – and she was the most prominent example of the Rococo style, the style that defined the 17th century. Name recognition faded with his death and the end of the Rococo era, but Carriera’s influence is there nonetheless. Two other great contemporary Rococo and pastel artists were Jean-Antoine Watteau (chiefly known for his colorful and dynamic style of painting reminiscent of the Mannerist tradition of Corregio and Rubens) and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779 — a master in the Guild of Parisian painters, Academy of Saint-Luc). Chardin rejected the Rococo style of his time, preferring that of the 17th century Flemish masters – Van Dyck, Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt, emphasizing the everyday life of the working and bourgeois classes, not the aristocracy or past history. Chardin died shortly before the French Revolution.

After the French Revolution there was a loss of interest in pastel art and watercolor pans became available in the 1830s. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was an innovative pastel painter whose works had lasting popularity and influence, and just as Rosalba Carriera took pastels beyond their traditional use for preliminary sketching with his accomplished portraits, Degas further transformed pastels into a major and well-recognized art. Medium. Soon, other great artists like Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec experimented with Pastel. These artists still remain today among the most famous users of pastel.

One last pastellist to review before moving on: James Abbott McNeill Whistler was another 19th-century artist who, like Degas, danced on the fringes of the Impressionist movement. Whistler’s most famous work, an oil portrait of his mother, “Whistler’s Mother”, is an iconic piece akin to the Mona Lisa or American Gothic. Whistler’s pastels were produced during a brief and intense period spent in Venice around 1880. Whistler, like Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, was an American expatriate.

Whistler’s work benefited from many sources: an early exposure to Russian art, his study of Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Rembrandt and Velazquez, Japanese art, and classical sculpture. Whistler was experienced in many media – pastel, watercolour, oil, drawing, etching and lithography. Whistler produced a very large number of works of art – over 500 pieces.

The turmoil surrounding the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 affected the French artistic community, sending Pissarro, Monet and other French artists to flee to England. Whistler, too, escaped to England where he was thus exposed to the evolving philosophy of Impressionism, freeing him from some of his early “realist” training. In 1871 Whistler returned to portraiture and created his most renowned work, the mostly gray-toned full-length figure which he titled “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1”, commonly referred to as “Whistler’s Mother”. The work with its monochromatic palette and seemingly simple design is actually a very sophisticated pattern of rectangles – the curtain, the plinth, the picture on the wall, the floor – and the curves – the face, the dress and the chair from his mother. It was a tribute to his mother whose recent arrival from the United States quickly stabilized the artist’s family life and somewhat excessive lifestyle. The work itself was not immediately recognized as an icon of motherhood, but it has attracted and attracts attention ranging from disdain to reverence for it as a unique work of genius depicting an archetypal image.

Harbor scene, Venice, 1880, pastel.
WhistlerHarbor Scene, Venice, Frick Collection.

In 1879, Whistler lost his lawsuit against critic John Ruskin, a libel suit for his condemnation of Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold”. After the trial, Whistler received a commission to make twelve etchings in Venice. Eager to flee England after the publicity surrounding the Ruskin fiasco, Whistler willingly left for Venice where he shared rooms in a dilapidated palace with his current girlfriend and other artists, including fellow expat John Singer Sargent. It was to be a transformative experience for Whistler. Whistler immediately set about adjusting to Venice, despite his homesickness for London. He tried to ignore the auction of his estate that was going on at his house to pay his legal fees. He led an active social life, joining parties at the American Consulate and other Venetian night spots.

Annabel Lee, pastel.

Whistler’s socialization did not prevent him from completing his commission. He got up early and worked hard, as always. The mission which was to last 3 months stretched over fourteen months. This was a very productive period for Whistler, during which he completed over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, a few watercolours, and over 100 pastels. This was Whistler’s deepest dive into the pastel medium and he drew both moody scenes of Venice and others highlighting its architectural detail. While in Venice, Whistler experimented with a quick and direct method of applying his pastels creating color harmonies that satisfied his artistic sensibility. His sketch of Annabel Lee has her female figure wrapped in garlands of classical drapery and accented with floral elements.

Back in London, the pastels of Whistler sold particularly well. Whistler was delighted. Exhibitions of his other work have had limited success. His economic distress persisted, but the admiration he received from the younger generation of English and American painters cheered him up. The American contingent returned to the United States and spread stories of Whistler’s defiant selfishness, quick wit, and aesthetic principles, establishing a myth around Whistler. Whistler at one time shared a friendship with Oscar Wilde. They eventually fell out, a pattern that seemed to repeat often in Whistler’s relationships. The reason for this particular falling out is notable in that Wilde is the author of the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the murdered artist in the story is based on Whistler.

As a leader of the aesthetic movement, Whistler spoke of the importance of “art for art’s sake” and advocated simple design, economy of means, avoidance of exaggerated techniques, and tonal harmony. . For Whistler, the artist had to interpret what he saw, not behave like a photographer of reality. Whistler’s works have been frequently studied, exhibited, and published. Whistler directly influenced two generations of artists, European and American (including John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase), exposing them to the ideas and ideals of the Realist, Impressionist, Tonalist and Symbolist movements, and Whistler had important contacts and exchanged ideas and ideals with the realist, impressionist and symbolist painters. As the American critic Charles Caffin wrote in 1907: “He did more than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced everyone in art. Consciously or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought. Next time, take a look at another famous female artist, American ex-pat Mary Cassatt.

Janet Cornacchio is a member artist 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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