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MFA Review: French Pastels

by Noemi Arellano-Summer

photography courtesy of Noemi Arellano-Summer

French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault is an exhibit that draws you in due to its apparent softness. The Charlotte F. and Irving W. Rabb Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is a large, middling gray room, currently covered in curling gold frames that house the pastel paintings. The collection includes nearly 40 French artworks from the nineteenth century, drawn by artists such as Monet, Degas and Millet to name a few.

This beautiful exhibit, at the MFA until January, shows off the innovation of these Impressionists, as well as their constantly referenced artistic styles and themes. For example, Edgar Degas often made artwork pertaining to ballet, though he also drew landscapes. His pieces show a familiarity with his subject through clear line work and they also indicate his innovation with technique, such as his careful rubbing of the pastels to create a tulle-like effect for a dancer’s skirt.

Using pastels jumped in popularity in the nineteenth century as synthetic dyes made new colors possible and readily available and cheap. Affixing dry pastels to paper is a difficult, fiddly process, however. Pastels are hard to layer, and they are delicate and sensitive to light. Therefore, they are often not shown in museums—until now.

The artists featured in this series have distinct styles that both art history scholars and everyday enthusiasts can absorb. Both Monet and Degas worked to capture the fleeting element of a moment, the here and now, in their delicate pastel paintings. Claude Monet’s work has a softening effect, while Degas’ is severe in its clarity, though blurred when he attempts to convey motion. Monet’s landscapes use bold colors and broad strokes to indicate a panorama effect; you are looking at something much larger than its size would indicate.

American artist Mary Cassatt lived in Paris for much of her adult life, and therefore she is included in this exhibit of French art. Her work uses light colors, as well as blurred and softened backgrounds. The faces she drew, however, are very clear. The exhibit also put a two-tier box of her pastels on display. As is typical of any artist, some colors were worn down to stubs, while others were barely touched.

Auguste Renoir, like Cassatt, drew his faces clear and his backgrounds blurred. Odilon Redon’s flower vase has a similar outcome, despite being a different subject. Leon Lhermitte followed in Degas’ footsteps with the idea of his work being the mundane made strange. His drawings are hazy and soft.

Four of Monet’s naturalistic panoramas are protected under glass, as are a guide to creating pastels and Mary Cassatt’s pastels box. Toward the far end of the exhibit, the walls cave in, creating a small offshoot of the room.

Frits Thaulow was a Norwegian artist who worked in France toward the end of his life. His main theme was naturalist landscapes. He used a soft grain to create the effect of snow in a winter scene on display. Jean-Francois Millet also focused on nature and country themes in his artwork. His pieces were so arresting that Vincent Van Gogh, four decade younger, saw Millet’s work as having spiritual significance. Camille Pissarro was, like Degas, an innovator in that she combined mediums, working with dry pastels and wet paint, ink or charcoal. She felt that pastels were somewhere between painting and drawing.

Ultimately, though the Rabb gallery and the MFA itself give the idea that these works are soft and delicate, their creators and effects are not. All the artists used subjects and techniques that show their ability to last, outstanding the ravages of time. That is why, 150 years later, they are on display yet again. They last.

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