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Degas and Pastels: Part I

December 20, 2011

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancers in Rose, c. 1900. Pastel on paper, 33 1/8 x 22 7/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Seth K. Sweetser Fund.

Because I work in pastels, I am particularly interested in seeing how other artists use this often underappreciated medium. Our current Degas exhibition features numerous works by the artist in pastel.

What were some of the qualities that attracted Degas to pastels? Unlike oil paint, pastel can be used spontaneously and has no preparation or drying time. It is a very direct material and permits the artist to make changes readily–important qualities for an artist like Degas who prized the ability to leave evidence of his decision making process on the surface.

Degas worked almost exclusively in pastel beginning in 1876 during a period of financial instability in his family. The works that Degas produced in pastel were more marketable than some of his works in other media such as painting, printmaking, and sculpture. In a letter to a friend, Degas referred to the necessity of doing some small pastels “to earn my dog’s life.” Though his use of pastels originated in necessity, they became his favorite material. Degas created over 700 pastels, more than in any other medium that he explored. Always a restless experimenter, Degas pushed the medium to its expressive limits.

Degas’s technical mastery of pastels was unsurpassed. Aware that some pastel colorants fade when exposed to light, Degas put his pastels out in the sun to bleach fugitive colorants out of them before he used them. He often used pastel moistened with water and mixed with an adhesive such as casein, creating a kind of pastel paste that gave the appearance of paint applied with a brush. He even selectively moistened pastel passages with steam or a spray of boiling water and then extended the dissolved pastel with a brush into a translucent layer of color or pastel paste. Degas’s friends report seeing him place a drawing on the ground, cover it with board, and stomp on it to grind the pastel into the paper. Degas’s pastel palette was affected by the discovery of the first synthetic aniline dyestuff in 1856. The dazzling, high keyed colors of the costumes of Degas’s ballet dancers reveal the effect of the new color technology on his palette.

Part two will be posted tomorrow.

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