Although Symbolist painting became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was quickly consigned to oblivion with the rise of modernism. Rescuing images of those paintings isn’t easy now, and there are even fewer accessible images of pastel paintings. So far, I have been able to find those of just two artists: Alphonse Osbert (1857–1939) and Edmond Aman-Jean (1858–1936).
Osbert underwent a classical training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he worked in the studios of Henri Lehmann, Fernand Cormon and Léon Bonnat, and would undoubtedly have had exposure to the art and technique of pastels. His painting evolved through different styles, from Naturalism to Divisionism, and he was a friend of the founder of Divisionism Georges Seurat. In the late 1880s he became influenced by Puvis de Chavannes, and exhibited at the Salons de la Rose+Croix, officially making him a Symbolist.
The sole painting in pastels that I’ve been able to find is his Lyricism in the Forest from 1910. This is similar to his oil paintings of the period, with a richer palette, and its statuesque figures set in a timeless landscape. I’d love to see more of his pastels in particular.
Thankfully more of Aman-Jean’s pastel paintings are now accessible. He too trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he worked in the studio of Henri Lehmann. There his fellow pupils included Georges Seurat, Alphonse Osbert and Alexandre Séon, with whom he remained friends thereafter. Alongside Georges Seurat, Aman-Jean worked as an assistant to Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and went on to exhibit at the Salon de la Rose+Croix.
His earliest accessible pastel painting is this Woman in Pink from about 1900. She forms a diagonal from upper left to lower right, as she sits amid an almost abstract landscape of wavelike scarlet forms.
From the early years of the twentieth century, Aman-Jean’s surviving works are almost exclusively portraits of beautiful young women, such as this Woman with Glove from about 1900-02. These are constructed using regular patterns of marks, giving the image a dreamlike quality.
Young Woman (Natalie Clifford Barney) from about 1902 is believed to be a portrait of this American writer, who would have been about twenty-five at the time. The daughter of the painter Alice Pike Barney, she was openly lesbian, and lived much of her life in Paris, where she died in 1972. For over sixty years, she held a literary salon in her home in the city, and was highly influential in arts circles.
In Aman-Jean’s Woman at a Masked Ball from 1919, the woman shown holds her mask away from her face. Her gown is disintegrating on her left shoulder, revealing much of her left chest.
This image isn’t of Aman-Jean’s original pastel painting, but a print of it made by Honorine Césarine Tian (1871-1953), who worked under the name of Nori Malo-Renault. She too trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, in the studio of the great Naturalist painter Luc-Olivier Merson, and married the pastellist Émile Auguste Renault (1870-1938), who is known as Malo-Renault. For this print, she produced an etching to which she added drypoint and aquatint, making a total of five plates of copper (one of colour).
Reverie is another pastel painted in Aman-Jean’s distinctive lined style, enhancing the dreamy look on the young woman’s face.
Six fine Symbolist pastel paintings seems a disappointingly small number for such a substantial movement in art.