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Rarely displayed pastels by Degas, Millet and their contemporaries on view at MFA Boston
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), Path through the Wheat, about 1867. Pastel and black conté crayon on gray wove paper. Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Quincy Adams Shaw, Jr., and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- The fragility of powdery pigment and the light sensitivity of the paper on which it rests mean pastels can rarely be exhibited—typically for only a few months per decade. French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), provides an opportunity to see nearly 40 masterworks by 10 avant-garde artists who reinvigorated the challenging medium in the 19th century, from depictions of rural life by Jean-François Millet to portrayals of ballerinas by Edgar Degas. Drawn primarily from the MFA’s holdings and supplemented by key loans from a private collection, the exhibition is organized thematically, showcasing artists’ use of the colorful sticks of ground pigment to capture the ephemeral—fleeting expressions of the face, the movement of fabric or atmospheric effects—and beauty in the mundane. Pastel, which required none of the drying time of oil paint, was perfectly suited to these aims. New and bold colors, made possible by the advent of synthetic dyes, encouraged experimentation in the mid-19th century, and Millet and Degas were among the leading innovators. In addition to exploring their techniques and artistic processes, the exhibition also highlights works by their contemporaries: Mary Cassatt, Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Johan Frederik Thaulow. French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault is on view from June 30, 2018 through January 6, 2019 in the Charlotte F. and Irving W. Rabb Gallery. Supported by the Robert Lehman Foundation and Davis and Carol Noble.

“To really appreciate how astonishing these pastels are—the extraordinary variety of surfaces and marks achieved with this beautiful, colorful dust—you really have to spend time with them, up close and in person, and that’s a very rare opportunity to have,” said Katie Hanson, Assistant Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe.

Millet developed his pastel practice in the mid-1860s, producing luminous, evocative views of shepherds, farmyard and country themes that employed the versatile medium to dazzling effect. His depictions of flowers and grass present them from the point of view of a bug or small animal, intimate in their proximity, lush in their details and color. Pastel covers the sheet in Dandelions (1867–68), showing no glimpse of sky save for the bright patches of light touching the grass and the little white blossom at lower left. In Primroses (1867–68), the cowslip primroses glow, brilliant yellow amid the dense darkness of the forest floor, while a snail with a glistening antenna moves along the rough earth. In Shepherdess with her Flock and Dog (1863–65), the artist imbues a sense of monumentality to the contemplative figure of the young shepherdess, delicately balancing luminous pastel with dark conté crayon to convey sunlight peeking from behind the clouds above, illuminating the herd yet leaving the peasant’s downturned face in shadow.

Nearly all of Millet’s late pastels were commissioned by Emile Gavet, an architect and arts patron who provided him with a monthly stipend and drawing supplies. Following Gavet’s financial downturn, his collection of nearly 100 pastels by Millet was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in June 1875. Twelve of the works on view in the exhibition were included in this historic auction, which was a revelation for artists at the time. “When I entered the room at Hôtel Drouot where they were exhibited,” wrote the awe-struck Vincent van Gogh, “I felt something akin to: Put off thy shoes, for thou standest on holy ground.”

Degas also experimented boldly with pastel, using processes that still elude explanation. In the exhibition, works from across more than three decades of his career highlight his inventiveness. They include four pastels depicting his most famous subject—ballerinas, whose lives he explored and portrayed on stage, in rehearsals and backstage in private moments. Degas achieved a great range of effects in these works. In Dancers Resting (1881–85), he rendered the glints of light on the ballerinas’ hair with small, linear strokes, the opaque outer skirts with broader, heavier strokes, and the puffy underskirt by rubbing the medium diffusing the pigment either with his hand or a rag. In Dancers in Rose (about 1900), however, the encrusted pastel takes on the appearance of a dense fabric, rather than a light airy powder. Degas also often worked in a cumulative way, changing the scale of the page with strips of paper before having it mounted onto a firm surface. In Seated Dancer (1895–1900, Isabelle and Scott Black Collection), he revised his composition as he worked—viewers can note the repositioning of the dancers’ legs and the modification of the size and shape of the paper itself, with strips added at both sides. These pastels bring visitors close to the artist’s process through their visible strokes and seams.

While renowned as a great portrayer of people and urban entertainments, Degas was also a landscapist. The exhibition includes two of his distinctive color monotype landscapes, created in an unusual process. The artist applied paint or printers’ ink onto a metal plate, placed a dampened sheet of paper on top of it, and ran it through a printing press. Degas left some of his monotypes as they came off the printing press, but enhanced and modified the two works on view with pastel once the printed matrix had dried. The exhibition also includes landscapes by Monet, from an early moment in his career when he was just beginning to work en plein air, and his Norwegian friend Thaulow, who used pastel to depict the powdery blowing snow, harmonizing medium with motif.

Additional notable works on view include Pissarro’s Poultry Market at Gisors (1885), which hovers between the effect of painting and drawing and was given by the artist to Monet in exchange for one of his canvases, as well as the work of Mary Cassatt, shown alongside a box of pastels once used by the artist.

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