Degas and Pastels: Part II

Read part one in my series on Degas and pastels.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas Dancer Adjusting Her Shoe, 1885. Pastel on paper, 19 x 24 in. Collection of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee; Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Hugo N. Dixon, 1975.6.

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.

11 thoughts on “Degas and Pastels: Part II

  1. Karen, interesting article… I’d like to point out however that the use of fixative on pastels is a very damaging practice. Although fixative does adhere the grain of the pigment to the surface and mitigates accidental smearing, it also compresses and alters color. Since creating an artwork in pastel is a process of veiling color, (layering translucent hues from dark to light), the compression that fixative creates reduces a pastel’s vaporous surface a great deal. It’s a catch-22 in that without the fixative, the artwork is far more susceptible to damage, as pastel is an exceedingly fragile medium… yet since it is a medium that is about color and light more than anything else, the artwork is often ruined by the use fixative in the process… the fixative sadly flattens the image. Superimposed color is far more easily achieved without fixative through various techniques. Degas’ pastels were undoubtedly more vibrant and therefore probably even more impacting than they are now before he applied his fixative on the final layer… or before perhaps someone else did. One can only wonder how much more glorious they were to behold when they were freshly executed.

    • Martin, Thanks for your comment. I agree that using fixative is a difficult balancing act. Even though Degas used fixative, I think that his pastels have a remarkable feeling of depth. It would be fascinating to see one of his pastels without fixative to make a comparison.

  2. Pingback: Degas and Pastels: Part I « The Experiment Station

    • I checked with our paper conservator, Sylvia Albro, who told me that most Degas scholars believe that he used atomizers that you blow through which were advertised in magazines of the period. Sylvia said that Toulouse-Lautrec used the same kind of atomizers to apply color in his lithography posters, creating a beautiful effect of spattered color

    • I have read comments that suggest that he sometimes mixed fixative with ground up pastel for certain effects. I also understood from my reading that he would fix a state and then work on top of it, then fix again and work on top of that, creating layers. He was also supposedly trying different fixatives including secret recipes, not just shellac.

  3. Degas has always been one of my favorite artist. As a “fun” learning assignment for myself, I made an oil painting of a famous pastel he did sometimes entitled The Star. Later after more research, I realized I had made it almost the same size. It’s pretty darn good if I do say so and it hangs in my bedroom. It’s the first thing I see every morning. I was able to capture that glow of light under his dancer’s face. I loved duplicating the shimmer of the dancer’s jewelry and costume. Enjoyed the process and I would NEVER sell it. Also did a reproduction of Renoir’s Boating Party many years ago. It’s about 1/5 the size of the original. Took me three years to copy the brush strokes (as closely as possible) from a book I purchased at The Phillips Art Museum. Wish I could show them to you.

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