Read part one in my series on Degas and pastels.
Degas’s use of fixative was the key to the appearance of his many-layered pastel works. Fixative makes it possible for pastel to adhere to paper without smearing or smudging and enables the artist to continue to work over pastel that has already been applied. Degas searched for a fixative that would not alter the matte, velvety quality of his pastels. Degas used a secret formula for fixative given to him by artist Luigi Chialiva that has not been duplicated today. By using fixative to prevent blending and smudging, Degas created a roughened surface to which each layer of pastel adhered easily. The fixative applied at different layers of the composition enabled Degas to create a work using multiple layers of pastel, which achieved an astonishing complexity of superimposed color.
Degas combined pastel with printmaking. He often made monotypes, a printmaking process in which a drawing is made in black ink on a copper plate. He decided to add pastel to his prints after they were dry. The monotype established the basic compositional structure; by adding pastel, as in Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet (c. 1876), Degas enhanced the expressive qualities of the image. The pastel accentuates the way the light from the footlights illuminates the dancer’s face and transforms it into a mask-like presence.
By the middle of the 1880s, Degas’s mastery of the pastel medium was apparent. During the same decade, Degas’s way of working with pastel changed and became much more abstract. The strokes of his pastels became increasingly assertive. The late work Dancers in Green and Yellow (c. 1903) is filled with a wide variety of marks as well as color that could be described as shrill. The calligraphic lines of the surface create a sense of vibration, movement, and life; the intensity of color and vigorous handling become subjects in and of themselves, transcending the need to define form.
Surely the centerpiece of the exhibition, Dancers at the Barre (early 1880s- c. 1900), was influenced by Degas’s protracted exploration of the pastel medium. On first glance, the oil painting even looks like a pastel because of its softly glowing color. Degas’s extended foray into the pastel medium brought energy and intensity to his painting.