visiting a world of pastels in washington

In mid-October, we ventured into Washington, D.C. to see the exhibit “The Touch of Color: Pastels at the National Gallery of Art.” The exhibit will be at the gallery until January 26, 2020.

First used during the Renaissance, pastels are manufactured from a balanced mix of pigment, a filler such as chalk or clay, and a binder; they are then are shaped into sticks and dried. Artists like the medium because it is simple; the artist applies line and color with a single stroke of a stick. Because the texture is soft and crumbly, the line can be left intact or smudged with a finger or a roll of leather or paper.

Before pastels, artists used chalks in various colors, but they were limited by the colors that came out of the earth. Early in the 18th century, Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera popularized pastel “painting,” or working on paper mounted on canvas and completely covering the surface with an opaque layer of pastel that imitated the effect of oil painting. French pastel artists were admired for their ability to imitate textures ranging from flawless skin to luxurious fabrics. Most pastel paintings in the 18th century were portraits; because of the quick drying time, sittings could progress rapidly. Artists admired pastels’ ability to capture fleeting expressions on the human face, or in landscapes.

A box of pastels was also very portable, giving the artist mobility.



Different types of pastels were sold in the 19th century – soft pastels suitable for blending, hard pastels for drawing fine details, and large conical sticks for coloring large areas. A range of papers was available, some coated with sawdust, grit or textile fibers.

Pastels are known for their brilliant colors and delicate, velvety texture and have proven to be a versatile material in the art world. Artists have used it in many ways, from glowing portraits in the 18th century and shimmering landscapes of the impressionists to the abstract compositions of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, they have changed little in centuries of use. They can be used wet or dry, and are also considered very fragile, as the powdery medium doesn’t adhere well to paper or canvas.

Taking a walk through the exhibit, I found many pieces that caught my eye.  Apparently most of these are from the Gallery’s huge permanent collection, which curators have studied to create a history of this medium.


The Mocking of Christ by Jacopo Bassano (1568)


Hunting Trophy with Mallard, Partridge, Goldfinches, and Onions by Antoine Berjon (c. 1810)


The Well-Loved Mother by Jean-Baptiste (1765)


A Meadow at Sunset by Paul Huet (c. 1845)

As pastelist Rosalba Carriera rose to celebrity status in the early 18th century, pastel became considered an appropriate medium for women. It was cleaner and simpler than painting in oils, and it was more easily interrupted and resumed, allowing women to tend to housework and children. It was considered an acceptable “ladylike” medium for amateurs.

Mary Cassatt came upon some pastels by Edgar Degas.  Seeing them changed the direction of her work and inspired her to turn to impressionism. She collaborated with Degas for over a decade, and they shared many of the same techniques.


The Black Hat by Mary Cassatt (c. 1890)


Reclining Nude by Paul Gauguin (1894-1895)

One of the most creative pastel artists was Edgar Degas, who experimented with the medium for decades.


Two Women by Edgar Degas (c. 1878-1880)


Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas (c. 1877)


The Ballet by Edgar Degas (c. 1880)


Café-Concert by Edgar Degas (1876-1877)


The Palace; white and pink by James McNeill Whistler (1879-1880)


The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore by James McNeill Whistler (1880)

The “painting” below was the highlight of the exhibit, in my opinion.  It was also on the cover of the exhibit brochure.


Study of Flesh Color and Gold by William Merritt Chase (1888)

Pastels by Henri Matisse are rare, as he experimented with them for only brief periods.


Woman with an Exotic Plant by Henri Matisse (c. 1925)


Wildflowers by Odilon Redon (c. 1905)


Breadline by George Luks (1900)

I was amazed by the detail on the lace cap in the painting below by Pietro Rotari.


An Elegant Young Lady with a Lace Cap by Pietro Rotari (1750/1756)




Portrait of a Lady by Neroccio de’ Landi

I am fascinated by the different mediums artists use to create, and though I hope this year to keep my focus on watercolor, pastels may be a medium to try in the future. 🙂

(Information presented above is from a brochure from the exhibit, as well as informative signs throughout.)

*Saturday, October 19, 2019*


“PHOTOGRAPHY” INVITATION:  I invite you to create a photography intention and then create a blog post for a place you have visited. Alternately, you can post a thematic post about a place, photos of whatever you discovered that set your heart afire. You can also do a thematic post of something you have found throughout all your travels: churches, doors, people reading, people hiking, mountains, patterns, all black & white, whatever!

I am went to an exhibit about Pastels at the National Art Gallery in D.C. this past fall, and as I’ve started becoming interested in different mediums for art, I thought I’d assemble some of the greats here.

You probably have your own ideas about this, but in case you’d like some ideas, you can visit my page: photography inspiration.

I challenge you to post no more than 20-25 photos (I have more here!) and to write less than 1,500 words about any travel-related photography intention you set for yourself. Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, January 15 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Thursday, January 16, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation, every first, second, and third (& 5th, if there is one) Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!