Fine art enthusiasts appreciate the special qualities of pastel drawings and paintings. Ranging from rough sketches to highly detailed, lush paintings, famous pastel works are in the collections of the most prestigious galleries. Oil paintings are typically the most celebrated fine art medium, but some of the most revered artists also worked with pastel.
In the Beginning
Reaching back 15,000 years, there is evidence of wet and dry charcoal pigments in the enormous animal cave paintings in Lascaux, France. These pigments are similar to the composition found in pastels. The first famous artist to have used pastels was Leonardo da Vinci. In 1499, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Isabelle d'Este, the Duchess of Mantina. He used what he called "the dry color method" when creating this work, using black and red chalk with yellow pastel highlights.
Perhaps the most popular pastel painter of the eighteenth century was Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera. Her famous painting, "Young Girl Holding Crown of Laurel," is dated 1721, and exemplifies a master painter's aptitude with pastel. It features a young woman, possibly herself, presenting a crown of laurels to the Academie Royale so that she may be accepted into this distinctive group of European artists. Her admission piece was accepted and has been housed in the Louvre. Carriera was highly respected within the genre of pastel portraiture throughout Europe, and was especially known for her psychological insight and elegant use of the medium.
The foremost master in pastel painting of the nineteenth century was French artist Edgar Degas. He was influenced by Rosalba Carriera, but created his own approach and a new pastel technique. He created multiple alternating layers of spray fixative, a preservative for pastels, and pastels, creating a new approach to pastel painting. He was the original master of French Impressionism, and was highly influential. He is noted for his ability to capture talented female subjects in casual poses, especially dancers and singers. His gauzy ballerina portraits are perhaps the most recognizable, mainly the pastel paintings "Three Dancers in Violet Tutues," circa 1895, and "The Singer in Green," circa 1884. He frequented many working class cafes, where he met these performers, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Mary Cassatt was born in the United States and later moved to Paris to further her artistic career. She is best known for her portraits featuring the intimate moments between mother and child, and children peacefully playing. An eager student of Edgar Degas, she was profoundly influenced by his work, which led her to paint with pastels. She became part of the French Impressionist group of artists, and was known as the female leader of this movement. Her two most famous pastel paintings are "Mother and Child," and "Nurse With Child," circa 1900.
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