The American Pastel Revival
Beginning in the early 1880s, European-trained American artists embraced the medium of pastel, virtually unused in this country since the era of early American portraiture. This easily portable medium was well suited to their increasingly spontaneous Realist painting styles, their preference for direct sketching outdoors, and their growing taste for pure, vibrant colors. It was conducive to the feathery Impressionist technique with which many of them had begun to experiment, while it led more conservative painters of polished forms to loosen their touch.
These newly minted pastellists found inspiration in the works of a number of leading European painters who themselves had adopted pastel as a primary means of expression: the great French peasant painter Jean-François Millet, whose works were well known in this country by mid-century; the cosmopolitan, Italian-born figure and landscape painter Giuseppe de Nittis; and the French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Perhaps even more influential than these European artists was the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, whose Venetian pastels of the late 1870s had a formative impact on his young compatriot traveling companions, Robert Blum and John Henry Twachtman. In 1882 a group under the leadership of Robert Blum founded The Society of American Painters in Pastel, which promoted pastel as a medium for ambitious finished works as well as for experimentation, and successfully organized four major showcase exhibitions (in 1884, 1888, 1889, and 1890) that contributed to a lively new interest among artists and collectors alike.
Pastel continued to engage artists after the turn of the century, when it was taken up by young American Realists and a budding generation of modernists. Avid practitioners of pastel, including the painters William Glackens and George Bellows, participated in a second short-lived group known as the Pastellists (1910−15). For the majority of artists, however, pastel’s potential for spontaneity, directness, brilliance, and delicacy was overshadowed by its inherent fragility. Well into the twentieth century, it remained largely a medium for the quick sketch, the evanescent expression, or the formal experiment rather than for ambitiously expansive or elaborate pictorial statements. Much of its attraction thus lies in the subtlety and intimacy that characterize the works on view here.
Pastels are made by combining colored pigments with inert, white fillers and just enough binder to form a paste, which is then rolled into sticks and dried. The white fillers provide body and opacity to the stick. In addition, by varying the amount of white filler, many gradations of paler tints can be created within any one color family. Historically, many different binders (including honey, fig juice, and rabbit-skin glue) were used in making pastels, but by the nineteenth century, gum tragacanth was most commonly employed. The minimal binder content in pastels gives them their characteristic velvety appearance. When applied, they form powdery, opaque layers of irregularly shaped particles with many surfaces from which to scatter reflected light.
Both paper and fabrics have been used as supports for pastel. A surface with some degree of tooth or grain, to ease the powder off the stick and to assist in holding these particles in place, is desirable. Often support surfaces were enhanced by the addition of glue mixed with particulates such as crushed pumice, marble dust, sawdust, or other abrasive materials.
By virtue of their powdery nature, pastels are inherently fragile. A pastel can be easily smeared if the surface is touched or rubbed, and vibration can dislodge grains of pigment. Ironically, this very fragility is what gives pastels their characteristic brilliance, for light is scattered and reflected as it strikes the surface of the powder. Thus, attempts to prevent the loss of pastel particles by adding a fixative, or adhesive, to the layers often change the surface reflection and sometimes dull the appearance. Rather than using fixatives, preservation efforts today are directed toward finding archival framing solutions (to protect the surface), avoiding excess handling and motion (to prevent vibration and loss of pigment), and limiting light exposure (to reduce fading).
August 8, 2005
“Crayon Painting”: American Pastels, 1890–1935, an installation of rarely seen, extremely fragile works on paper from the Brooklyn Museum collection will be on view in the Luce Visible Storage/Study Center from September 21 through December 2005. It is the latest presentation in a planned series of four yearly small exhibitions of selected works on paper from the permanent collection in the recently opened center.
“Crayon Paintings” has been organized by Teresa A. Carbone, the newly appointed Andrew W. Mellon Curator and Chair of American Art.
In the late nineteenth century, the medium of pastel, virtually unused in this country since colonial and antebellum times, was revived by a new generation of American artists, who found “crayon painting” well suited to direct sketching, brilliant color effects, and the Impressionist technique with which many of them had begun to experiment. In 1882 a group under the leadership of Robert Blum founded The Society of American Painters of Pastel, a group of artists who viewed pastel as a medium for finished works as well as experimentation. In the early twentieth century the pastel medium continued to be employed by many young American Realists as well as by a nascent generation of modernists.
Among the works in “Crayon Painting” are Robert Blum’s Woman in Japanese Costume, (circa 1890–92) depicting a model wrapped in a voluminous kimono; William Merritt Chase’s At the Window, (circa 1889) an evocatively backlit image of his young wife at a window; and Winter on 21st Street, New York, (1899), by Everett Shinn, who had been trained as a newspaper quick-sketch artist. Also included are City Scene, (1910), by William Glackens, Two Dancers, (circa 1935-40), by Raphael Soyer, and Study of Two Dancers, (1915-20) by Arthur B. Davies.
The Luce Visible Storage/Study Center includes more than 1,500 objects displayed in a far more compact fashion than in traditional gallery presentations, with the exception of exhibition areas where rotating selections of works on paper, decorative arts, paintings, and sculpture are presented.
Established by a $10 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Luce Center for American Art, comprising 17,000 square feet, encompasses the Visible Storage±Study Center and the adjacent installation American Identities: A New Look.