NEW YORK—I walked into the Met’s new exhibit Eighteenth-Century Pastels expecting to examine some nice drawings. I was immediately surprised at how small the gallery is. Only 17 artworks hung on the walls. All but three are portraits.
And then I got the jolting sense that the people in these portraits were looking at me, instead of the other way around. These people—Frenchmen, Englishmen, Italians, and Danes, who lived unbeknownst to each other—all gaze out with startling vitality, as if they stood before us today.
The kindly gazes of M. and Mme. François de Jullienne welcome visitors into the gallery. Their plump, smiling faces and fine clothes tell us that they must have been well-to-do and lived a sweet life.
Portraits of a little boy and girl by the Florentine painter, draftsman, and pastelist Benedetto Luti capture perfectly the frank and guileless nature of children.
Olivier Journu (1724–1764) must have been a witty man—the almost ironical expression in his turquoise eyes, as rendered by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, tells us so.
Louis XVI’s little sister Madame Élisabeth sat for a 1787 portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Her eyes exude something sad, maybe pleading. Then I read the text on the wall, which explained that she followed her brother to the guillotine.
Pastels have long been considered the little brother of oils, but maybe this shouldn’t be so.
A skilled artist could create the same image in oil and in pastel, but the one in pastel will feel totally different. It’s softer, less formal, more approachable than those in oil.
Any effect one could do in oil, one could do in pastel—water, foliage, all manners of fabric, complexions, coiffures—except you can’t paint over previous marks, so few mistakes are allowed. Maybe this makes working in pastel more impressive.
The Purity of Pastels
Sticks of pastels are composed of the same powdered pigments that are used to color paints.
Today, pastels come in several forms: oil pastels, water-soluble pastels that can be used almost like watercolors, and hard pastels that are great for fine details. Soft pastels are the most widely used and have the lowest amount of binding, making them the most vibrant.
After the powdery substance is applied to paper, it sits on the surface as loose particles, almost like powder in a makeup compact. Travel can jolt the colors right off the page. An impact could ruin the artwork.
Luckily, most of the artworks in this exhibit are local. No matter how short the traveling distance, though, the utmost care must be given in the transport of pastels.
“They are put in a special crate, placed flat, facing up. Double box, lots of cushioning. Then you need lots of moving blankets,” said curator Katharine Baetjer of the European Paintings department. “You have to have a good driver who drives slowly and avoids potholes. Usually I go with them, so they’re more careful.”
Despite their fragility, pastels have the potential to resist aging much better than oils can.
“If it has been in good condition, it will look like it did when it was made. You can’t clean it, it can’t discolor, it can only fade if overexposed [to light].”
In common museum practice, pastels are displayed in dim light behind glass for no more than a few months at a time.
Oils can withstand a much longer exhibition time, but face a variety of other conservation problems—over time, the varnish yellows and cracks, marring the overall picture and making restoration necessary. Certain mineral and plant pigments are prone to yellowing, darkening, or shifting their hue over the long decades. That’s why old oil paintings often carry a patina.
“Presumably that’s why people loved to have their portraits done in pastel—because they are so bright, even in low light,” Baetjer said. They are also relatively mess-free and highly portable.
For a pastel portrait, the sitter is needed for two to three sittings for a total three hours, according to Baetjer. The artist can do the clothes and background without the sitter’s presence. This is much more favorable to the fidgety than sitting for an oil portrait, which is traditionally done in several prescribed layers, resulting in a longer sitting time.
A lot of women and amateurs worked in pastel, according to Baetjer.
A compact neoclassical 1810 painter’s table in the exhibit gives a hint at how artists worked. Its drawers were filled with pastels of rainbow hues, a chamois, and a variety of small tools.
The Collection that Almost Never Was
Although pastels have been in use since the 15th century, the Metropolitan Museum, which was founded in 1870, didn’t acquire its first pastels until 1929. The bequest came from Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, one of America’s first collectors of the medium. In it were about 20 19th-century works by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet.
These were shown for 40 years, but the Met still didn’t buy any pastels of its own.
In 1956, the museum was bequeathed a pastel by Jean Pillement (1728–1808), “A Shipwreck During a Storm” (1782), which along with two other Pillements are in the present exhibition.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Baetjer bought for the museum a pastel by Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757), also in exhibition today.
The reason the Met didn’t come by its first pastel until the 1920s was a matter of short supply and low collector interest, according to Baetjer. But the reason it didn’t start purchasing pastels is a more interesting story.
“In some museums, pastels are in the drawings collections, in others, they are in paintings collection,” Baetjer explained. At the Met, the drawings department didn’t buy them “because they are not used to buying works of art that are colored. The paintings department didn’t buy them because they can’t be shown year round—works on paper traditionally are never shown year round.”
“So each thought it was the other’s responsibility or that the other wasn’t interested.”
But when Baetjer saw the Carriera at Sotheby’s in 2002, she was determined to buy it. She got permission and brought the piece into the care of the European Paintings department.
“The trustees liked it because didn’t cost much, and because they liked pastels themselves,” Baetjer said.
Since then, the museum has gradually grown its pastels collection with works by Italian, French, British, German, and Danish artists.
Eighteenth–Century Pastels is showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until Dec. 29, 2013, in the New European Paintings wing.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.,
New York, New York 10028
Suggested admission $12–$25