Pastel colors are damn beautiful

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. Rinaldi made the best of a bad situation and delved deep into the FAMSF’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts collection. What emerged is a satisfying exhibit on the power of pastels from the 16th to the 21st century, drawn primarily from the FAMSF’s own permanent collection, along with loans from a handful of others in Northern California. Rarely seen and even rarer on loan (Berthe Morisot’s fabulous portrait of her niece, ‘Blanche’, for example, has not been exhibited since 1896), pastels are the neglected child in the family of painting. An overlooked and even scorned medium – too light, too bright, too smooth, too fun, (too feminine?) – pastels have a PR problem that Color Into Line: pastel colors from the renaissance to the present at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor goes a long way in correcting.

Jean-Étienne Liotard, “Portrait of a Man and His Dog, possibly 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 (San Francsisco Museum of Fine Arts, gift from Grace Hamilton Kelham and Leila Hamilton Lewis in memory of their mother Grace Spreckels Hamilton)

The show starts with austere Italian drawings from the 16th century, but soon turns to bright rococo portraits by artists like Rosalba Carriera and Jean-Étienne Liotard (both also two very winning canine friends). Ground pigment mixed with a binder to create a colored stick has been used to outline underdrawings for oil paintings since the early 1500s, as evidenced by the show’s opening pieces. Artists made such sticks themselves until the mid-17th century when they came into limited production. In the early 18th century, there was an eager market for commercial pastels. Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera – known during her lifetime as “The Queen of Pastel” – helped revive that market by pioneering a new style of painting, using pastels.

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

installation view, Color in line: pastels from the renaissance to the present, Legion of Honor, San Francisco (photo by Gary Sexton, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

A somewhat understated, but clear line of the show is the predominance of female artists who work with pastels (the reasons are many, including portability; no need for smelly solvents; believe that pastels, like makeup, are somehow way were “natural” for women, and so on). There are about three women artists in each gallery, which can feel a bit like overly cautious symbolism, but then again I can’t think of another exhibition that spans so many centuries and includes so many women artists with ease. It’s time for female artists to be included in the wider art-historical narrative rather than set apart (and set aside).

Color in line is worth checking out for a number of art historical reasons – a quick introduction to European art from the Renaissance to today; the revaluation of a significant medium; the re-introduction of female artists into the canon. But perhaps most importantly, pastels are damn pretty. They are lush, exuding color and speed and energy. A kind of eye candy, they are a treat for the senses. Pastel colors can offer pure pleasure, which is scarce.

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

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

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