There’s something really special about pastel paintings. They’re fragile, as their ‘paint layer’ consists of unprotected particles of pigment clinging onto the ground by magic. They have a distinctive look resulting from the concentration of pigment with almost no binder. They also have an immediacy because the artist has usually applied them directly without brushes or tools.
Careful historical research by Thea Burns has established that the first artist to paint using real pastels, different from chalks in their binder and manufacture, was most probably Robert Nanteuil (1623-78), whose portraits of figures such as the Bishop of Riez in 1663 are among the first true pastel paintings. He attained fame as artist to the court of Louis XIV.
Nanteuil’s Portrait of Monseigneur Louis Doni d’Attichy, Bishop of Riez from 1663 is one of the first true pastel paintings, relatively small, and expertly worked.
Joseph Vivien (1657–1734) was one of the first successful pastel portraitists of the eighteenth century, producing superb works such as this portrait of an unknown man from about 1725. He innovated by laying his pastels down on blue paper, and working in large format, here 90 x 66 cm.
Mainstream artists such as Charles Antoine Coypel adopted pastels for preparatory sketches and studies, as seen in his dramatic portrait of Medea from about 1715. They soon became part of the classical repertoire of techniques used by masters, and some came to use pastels as their principal medium.
Rosalba Carriera was one of the most brilliant of the first wave of specialists, a founder of the Rococo, and one of the greatest of all women painters. She made several self-portraits, of which my favourite is her Self-Portrait as ‘Winter’, completed in 1730-31 soon after she had arrived to paint in the royal court of Vienna. This shows how well materials that had long been tricky to render in oils, like hair and fur, became strengths in pastels.
Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757)
The eccentric Jean-Étienne Liotard applied his pastels to parchment rather than paper, in painstakingly detailed realist works like The Chocolate Girl (c 1744-45). This shows how the pastel medium was moving on from a diet of portraits, here to what is perhaps best termed genre.
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789)
Maurice Quentin de La Tour was the king of pastel painting in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a long succession of portraits of the French royal court, including La Marquise de Pompadour, painted between about 1749-55, when she was the king’s confidante and advisor, as she remained until her death in 1764.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was inspired by Rosalba Carriera’s successful career, but lived in more difficult times. She too concentrated on portraiture, but advanced the medium in other genres including pioneering landscapes. The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien from 1787 is more than just a close family group, and her rendering of fabrics is as impressive as that of the figures.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)
Eugène Delacroix was among the mainstream masters who was highly accomplished in pastels as well as oils. His last known pastel painting is one of his finest: The Education of Achilles, painted in about 1862, shows the ‘wisest and justest of all the centaurs’ Chiron teaching Achilles to hunt.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Édouard Manet was a latecomer to pastels, when his medical condition made it impossible for him to stand at an easel for prolonged periods. In those final years, he painted some delicate and tender pastel portraits of women, including this Portrait of Madame Michel-Lévy (1882).
Édouard Manet (1832–1883)
Manet’s model and only pupil Eva Gonzalès probably learned to paint in pastels earlier, when she was taught by the portrait painter Charles Chaplin. In her brief career her style became Impressionist, and she used her pastels for landscape paintings such as In the Wheat (Dieppe) in about 1875-76.
Eva Gonzalès (1849–1883)
Edgar Degas was a prolific pastellist throughout his career, and painted some of his most important works in pastels, such as his enigmatic Waiting, from about 1882. As with his oil painting and prints, Degas experimented extensively, applying water with his pastels, and more.
Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Odilon Redon started with drawings and prints, and went on to paint some of the finest modern paintings in pastels. The Yellow Sail (c 1905) is one of Redon’s best-known work, developing his sailing boat theme by filling the boat with brilliant, twinkling jewels.
Odilon Redon (1840–1916)
Mary Cassatt had been a pupil of Charles Chaplin at the same time as Eva Gonzalès, and later spent time with Degas as her mentor when she was improving her printing techniques. Cassatt painted superb portraits using pastels, including this Mother Playing with Child from about 1897.
Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)
Of the three Nabis whose pastels have survived, Ker-Xavier Roussel’s are 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, a superb harvest scene painted in 1925-27.
The Nabis: Roussel, Ranson, Vuillard (1893-1930)
Although the pastel medium might seem to have particularly suited to the styles of several of the Symbolists, few are now accessible. Among them, Edmond Aman-Jean’s surviving pastels 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, one of Degas’ innovations, giving the image a dreamlike quality.
Alphonse Osbert and Edmond Aman-Jean (1900-19)
In the early twentieth century, pastel portraits came into vogue again, thanks in part to the work of Paul César Helleu. This portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough from about 1900 combines perfect, smooth blending over her face with vigorous mark-making through the fabrics and the ornate frame of the chair.
Paul César Helleu (1859–1927)
Some twentieth-century artists painted almost exclusively in pastels, including the Estonian Ants Laikmaa. This Girl in National Costume, painted in 1929, is one of his finest later works.
Ants Laikmaa (1866–1942)
Early in his career he switched from painting portraits in oils, to working almost exclusively in pastel. His meticulously detailed realism is particularly effective in the depiction of the optical properties of surfaces.
Firmin Baes (1874–1943)
Sadly, because of their fragility and unprotected pigments, pastel paintings are seldom seen in major galleries. When they are on display, they are well worth seeking out.
Thea Burns (2007) The Invention of Pastel Painting, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 12 3.