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Polemic and the toxicity of pastel

2 September 2013

Many readers of this blog will be aware that I am a specialist in eighteenth-century pastels. Those of you who know me from my previous career as a banker will no doubt find this surprising, and I dare say some will be saying: “I always knew there was something odd about him.” As the illustration in the entry on pastel in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1694) says, “C’est un Curieux, il a beaucoup de pastels chez lui.” For “odd” my former colleagues might prefer many different words, mostly derogatory. “Intellectual” will do, in England at least. “Lefty” will come to some, while others will recognise that an interest in élitist art of the ancien régime indicates the opposite, the worst kind of Rothschild taste (during the war pastels were however among the objects looted by the Nazis for the Führermuseum). In France I may even be thought of as an “ultra”.

Of course most practising bankers are careful not to admit to any cultural interest beyond opera; sport is a much safer topic in the City, where philistinism is rampant. (Any kind of refinement was anathema to one of my former colleagues who introduced himself to his team by saying “I p*** on merchant bankers called Rupert wearing lilac shirts.” I suspect all pastel tones would have incurred his fury.) There are exceptions:  for example, Sir Denis Mahon, from an eminent banking family, would have been widely admired in the City not for the quality of his collection, but the cheapness with which he bought it, while Sir Nicholas Goodison’s interest in ormolu clocks will be regarded as only mildly eccentric – clocks after all are pretty close to model railways, an acceptable boy’s hobby, and as for ormolu, it sounds vaguely Chinese – an excellent growth market.

No such excuses can be found for a fascination with pastel. The field that interests me has been written off – without knowledge of a single work – solely on the basis of the connotations of the word, which confer marks of opprobium as decisive as yellow star or pink triangle. As for the political spectrum, I can only explain: “Even though pink is related to red as pastel blue is related to blue, it is misguided to say that pink is really pastel red.”

These pastel quotations, and a great many more, can be found in a document on my Pastels & pastellists website. (If you share any of the prejudices discussed here, visit the rest of my site immediately to rid yourself of them.) It’s a not wholly serious attempt to follow the slippery slope down which have travelled both this word and its English equivalent (“crayons”, although “pastel”, being French, conveys more hostility, particularly when pronounced with the accent on the second syllable). I put it together to understand better how a whole field of art can be poisoned by a word. Apologies to fellow specialists who will be disappointed if the heading of this post led them to expect an article on chemistry; it is the word, not the powder, that is lethal.

To be briefly technical: pastel is a cross between painting and drawing which uses coloured chalks made by grinding up the pigments a painter normally mixes with oil. Instead they are mixed with fillers like clay so that they are soft enough to paint with, i.e. colour areas rather than scratch lines, which is all that natural chalk can do. Early pastels could only achieve anaemic colours. By the late seventeenth century however a full range of colour was available, but already the word had begun to be used to indicate paleness, as in one example from 1644.

That sense persisted, and was encouraged by the efforts of amateur artists who used pastels for sketching, as they might use chalk. “Just what ladies do when they paint for amusement”, Sir Joshua Reynolds said, attempting to put down his dangerously successful rival Liotard. Henry James noted that “the pencil and the brush [are] not the weapons of a gentleman”; no doubt he deliberately excluded crayons (my dictionary contains entries for a number of royal and many noble pastellists).

The notorious fragility of pastel, which is vulnerable to the slightest vibration, also contributed to an impression of perishability and thus flightiness, although oil paint could have similar problems (Horace Walpole delivered a damning assessment of Reynolds’s materials: “his colours seldom stand longer than crayons.” Walpole in turn was the subject of a Biographical sketch, in fugitive crayons, 1799.) After about 1800 very few artists continued to use pastel for painting, as such; it reverted to being a graphic medium, in which the paper was not covered, and the visual impression accordingly pale and etiolated.

By the nineteenth century, the stock idea of pastel was conveyed in the novels of the day. Jane Austen, as befits the new custodian of our currency (I hope she does a better job than Mark Carney seems intent upon), reserved this unsound activity for her dimmer or more vapid characters such as Miss Darcy or Mrs Elton. George Eliot talks of “portraits in pastel of pearly-skinned ladies with hair-powder”, while Thackeray, more robustly, observed “what awfully bad pastels there were on the walls.” A partial exception to the rule was Huckleberry Finn, who recorded his first encounter with pastels, noting that “they was different from any pictures I ever see before”, despite thinking, inexplicably, that they were “blacker, mostly, than is common”, but concluding nevertheless that “I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods.” (But Robert Lowell reverted to the normal sense when he described “a pastel-pale Huckleberry Finn”.) The French meanwhile, led by the writer who coined the term “art for art’s sake”, were acting out their stereotype, writing dreadful poems about pastels, butterflies and Mme de Pompadour.

Of course critics should be free to attack pictures and genres they don’t like. That they always have been is evident from the polemic of writers from George Vertue (his notes conclude of pastel painting that “all this is the depravity of skill, and lowness of Art by which means the unskillfull are deceivd– & pay for their Ignorance… the want of Ambition in Art thus shows its declining State… small pains & great gains…is this darling modish study”) to Lionel Cust (who attacked the “the repellent exaggerations of the pseudo-classical, namby-pamby style which was unfortunately so much in vogue”).

But the more insidious linguistic hazard arose in metaphorical uses. The verse form encouraged contributions such as the anonymous To Flavella, Occasioned by her Picture in Crayons, sent as a Present, but damaged by Carriage (1750); here the damaged work “still represents/Precarious beauty’s transient fate.”

The word itself took on a specific literary use. A volume of Pastels in prose appeared in New York in 1890, with an introduction explaining the term, adding that “the very life of the form is its aerial delicacy, its soul is that perfume of thought, of emotion…”. That life was extinguished by the response of another critic: “The French pastel is really a little study … of a trifling topic which lacks complexity.” A different US newspaper later cut to the chase, defining the genre as “saccharine bits of wispy fluff”.

In 1975 Ronald Reagan rallied his supporters offering to raise “a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand”. (You will note that I decided to omit an illustration for this post so as not to confuse you as to where I stand.) The language still resonates in France where intellectuals fight over the standard – or disclaim it. One writer (Jean Baudrillard), in a tirade against modernity, even felt that there was something immoral or dishonest about pastels which increasingly replace natural colours in modern life.

What have pastels done to deserve so much abuse? Rupert, whoever he was, got off lightly.

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From → Art history

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