Pastels among the Nabis: Roussel, Ranson, Vuillard

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Portrait of Jacques Laroche, at his Workdesk (1916), gouache and pastel on paper laid down on canvas, 123.7 x 95.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Several of the Nabis painted in pastels during their careers. Of the three I cover in this article, it was perhaps Ker-Xavier Roussel who was the most prolific in this medium, and created some of his finest works using it. All three benefitted from a relatively conventional training: Roussel, for instance, started as a pupil in the studio of Diogène Maillart, an academic history painter, and from there went on to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. All three were founding members of the Nabis when they were students at the Académie Julian under Tony Robert-Fleury.

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Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Women and Children by a Village (Let the little children come to me) (c 1893-95), pastel on grey paper, 37 x 52 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Roussel’s Women and Children by a Village, also known by the Biblical quotation of Let the little children come to me, from about 1893-95, is one of his earlier works in pastel, which has been squared up as if being transferred to a large format, perhaps intended for a finished oil painting. A Christ-like figure sits at the left, as mothers queue with their children to meet him.

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Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Eurydice and the Serpent (1915), pastel on paper, 24 x 31.7 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In Eurydice and the Serpent, a pastel from 1915, Roussel shows the fateful introductory scene in the well-known story which took the master musician Orpheus into the Underworld. Immediately after Orpheus and Eurydice had married, she was bitten by a snake, and died in her husband’s arms. The conventional painting made of this shows that last moment in Eurydice’s life; Roussel chooses a few moments earlier, with the snake seen on the ground in front of her.

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Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Old Silenus on a Donkey (1925-27), pastel on paper on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Roussel’s later pastel paintings are some of his finest works, and worth seeking out in the Musée d’Orsay, where they have some of his best examples. Among these is his Old Silenus on a Donkey, painted in 1925-27. Silenus was the King of Nysa, a companion, tutor and drinking partner to Bacchus, who like the god was often seen drunk. When unable to walk or stand, he was usually seen astride a donkey, as shown in this superb harvest-time scene.

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Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Reclining Female Nude (c 1930), pastel on paper, 47 x 60 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Sadly, Roussel’s narrative period seems to have faded during his late career, when he painted this Reclining Female Nude in pastels in about 1930.

Although I have been unable to find many of Paul Ranson’s paintings in pastel, both of these demonstrate his mastery of the medium.

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Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Fallen Stars (1900), pastel and gouache on canvas, 65 x 80 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In Ranson’s Fallen Stars from 1900 he also incorporated gouache. This refers back to his earlier paintings of witchcraft, and is one of his few nocturnes.

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Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Two Nymphs Surprised by a Rider (c 1905), pastel on canvas, 46 x 55.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Two Nymphs Surprised by a Rider from about 1905 revisits another earlier theme of nude bathers by a pond, here with references to classical mythology.

Édouard Vuillard’s pastel paintings are also superb, if hard to find.

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Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Evening Effect (c 1895), pastel on paper, 31.6 x 30.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Vuillard’s Evening Effect from about 1895 appears to have been influenced by photography, in the way that the figure in the foreground is blurred and ghostly, as they would be when photographed at night with a long exposure.

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Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Portrait of Jacques Laroche, at his Workdesk (1916), gouache and pastel on paper laid down on canvas, 123.7 x 95.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

For this Portrait of Jacques Laroche, at his Workdesk from 1916, Vuillard combined gouache with pastel, as Ranson did. Pinned on the wall above the scholarly child is a large map of Paris.

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Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Madame Gaston Lévy and Her Daughter (c 1928-30), pastel and charcoal on paper, 24.8 x 32.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Vuillard’s sketch portrait of Madame Gaston Lévy and Her Daughter from about 1928-30 uses the more common combination of pastel with charcoal.