One curious observation about the art of Eva Gonzalès is her competence in pastels when she was still a student of Édouard Manet (1832–1883) in about 1869-70. It’s plausible that Gonzalès learned to paint in pastels when she had been a pupil of the portraitist Charles Chaplin, and in turn it could have been her who inspired Manet to use them during the final five years of his career. However, Manet is likely to have gained experience with pastels during his own training with Thomas Couture between 1850-56.
Manet’s ninety or so surviving pastel paintings aren’t well known. It’s generally assumed that he turned to pastels in about 1878 when his advancing illness prevented him from standing at the easel for protracted periods to paint in oils. This article shows a small selection of these wonderful paintings.
Woman Fastening Her Garter (1878-79) shows a motif which many would associate more with Degas, perhaps, and a style which appears spontaneous and sketchy, indeed thoroughly Impressionist, were it not for its emphasis on form.
Several of these paintings could have been early studies for more finished works, including this Drinker of Bocks from about 1878-79. Bock was a strong and dark lager originally brewed in Germany, and here may mark the start of the descent to absinthe and alcoholism.
Manet also painted many quick portraits in pastel. This Portrait of Alphonse Maureau was made in the same period, 1878-79, and has been studied in detail during recent conservation work. Although pastels are more commonly applied to paper, Manet preferred to use canvas instead. These were generally prepared with a glue size on which a ground of lead white and oil was applied. That’s unusual, as it doesn’t provide a good key for the pastels, and more usual practice would be to include a more abrasive substance like pumice in the ground.
It’s thought that Manet bought his pastels rather than making them himself. As you’d expect from such an experienced artist, he started by blocking out the forms with quick strokes, reworking the shapes as the painting developed. Underlayers of the clothing were blended, in other paintings using a brush and sometimes a little dampening with water. Skin tone and other colour was applied using sharpened ends of pastel sticks, and used to build up the texture of the sitter’s bushy moustache. Manet doesn’t appear to have used any fixative, a controversial treatment intended to improve adhesion of the pastel grains, but often responsible for colour shifts and other undesirable artefacts.
Manet painted this fine portrait of Madame Guillemet in 1880, again on canvas. There is evidence of alteration of the profile of her back, and a gap between that and the chair behind her.
In a Café, from 1880, is thought to have been painted using a combination of oil paint and pastels, and may have been an early study leading to Le Bar des Folies Bergères, which he painted in oils in about 1881.
La Toilette (1880-81) looks even more typical of Degas, but Manet has blended in the flesh to make smooth tonal transitions.
This is believed to have been a later study for Le Bar des Folies Bergères (c 1881), this time of the barmaid.
In contrast to those, Manet also painted some beautifully delicate and tender portraits of women, such as this Portrait of Madame Michel-Lévy (1882).
If you ever get the chance to see any of Manet’s pastels in an exhibition, seize the opportunity: they’re even better in the flesh.