Pastels are damn beautiful

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SAN FRANCISCO – When Furio Rinaldi was hired in May 2020 to become the new Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), the de Young and Legion of Honor Museums were still closed due to COVID-19 . Making the most of a bad situation, Rinaldi delved into the collection of the Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts of the FAMSF. What has emerged is a satisfying long exhibition of the power of pastels from the 16th to the 21st century, mostly taken from FAMSF’s own permanent collection, as well as on loans from a handful of others in Northern California. Rarely exhibited, and even more rarely lent (the fabulous portrait of Berthe Morisot of her niece, “Blanche”, for example, has not been exhibited since 1896), pastel is the neglected child of the painting family. A neglected and even despised medium – too light, too bright, too dull, too fun, (too feminine?) – pastels have a PR problem that Color Into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the present day in the Legion of Honor of San Francisco contributes greatly to the correction.

Jean-Étienne Liotard, “Portrait of a man and a dog, perhaps Philippe Basset de la Marelle (1709-1779)”, pastel over graphite, on five sheets of parchment, mounted on canvas, 44 7/8 x 33 7/8 inches (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Grace Hamilton Kelham and Leila Hamilton Lewis in memory of their mother Grace Spreckels Hamilton)

The exhibition opens with sober 16th-century Italian drawings, but quickly turns to bright rococo portraits by artists such as Rosalba Carriera and Jean-Étienne Liotard (both of which include two very winning companion dogs). A ground pigment mixed with a binder to create a colored stick had been used since the early 16th century to sketch designs for oil paintings, as evidenced by the first pieces in the exhibition. Artists made such sticks themselves until the mid-17th century, when they entered limited production. At the start of the 18th century, there was an avid market for commercial pastels. Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera – known during her lifetime as “the queen of pastel” – helped energize this market by launching a new style of painting, using pastels.

Pastels have an immediacy and sensuality perfect for portraiture, Carriera’s most usual subject. The soft, powdery surface they leave behind gives tissue richness and texture, and when depicting human skin, pastels fill the flesh in a remarkably realistic way. You feel the little follicles of humanity, the makeup and the dust, the artifice and the natural that make us all. No wonder the medium has attracted so many artists over so many centuries, such as Color in line elegantly reveals, 18th century artists like Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and her father, Louis Vigée, to 19th century impressionist pillars such as Manet, Degas, Cassatt and Gonzales, passing by 20th century names like Redon, Rivera, Mitchell, Diebenkorn, Thiebaud and many more. The most recent piece in the exhibit, a multi-figure pandemic scene by Donna Anderson Kam, was acquired from the Young Open in late 2020.

Installation view, Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the present day, Legion of Honor, San Francisco (photo by Gary Sexton, courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

A somewhat low-key but clear line of exhibit is the predominance of female artists working in pastel (reasons are many, including portability; no need for smelly solvents; the belief that pastels were, like makeup, in somehow “natural” for women, etc). There are about three female artists included in each gallery, which might sound a bit too conservative, but on the other hand, I can’t think of another exhibition spanning so many centuries that includes so many female artists with ease. It’s time to see women artists incorporated into the larger narrative of art history rather than being set aside (and sidelined).

Color in line worth a visit for a number of historical art reasons – a quick introduction to European art from the Renaissance to the present day; the reassessment of a significant media; the reintegration of women artists into the canon. But perhaps more importantly, pastels are damn beautiful. They are lush, radiating color, speed and energy. A kind of feast for the eyes, they are a feast for the senses. Pastels can offer pure pleasure, which is rare.

Mary Cassatt, “Bust of a Young Woman” (ca. 1885-1890), pastel on faded gray paper, 17 7/8 x 15 3/16 inches (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, gift Dr T. Edward and Tullah Hanley Memorial, Bedford, Pennsylvania)

Color Into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the present day continues at the Legion of Honor Museum (100 34th Avenue, San Francisco) through February 13, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Furio Rinaldi.

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