Vuillard’s Beautiful Vista from Paper and Hide Glue

Edouard Vuillard, Place Vintimille, 1911. Five-panel screen, distemper on paper laid down on canvas, 90 9/16 x 23 5/8 inches (each panel). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Enid A. Haupt

One of the beautiful works in our current Snapshot exhibition is a 5 panel screen, 7 feet by 10 feet, painted in distemper on cardboard, Place Vintimille by Edouard Vuillard (1911).

Distemper in this case is not the viral disease of cats and dogs but a water-based paint, consisting of pigment, whiting, and hide glue. A simple recipe can be found online.

Distemper is a decorative rather than traditional artist’s material, used where permanence is not important.Vuillard probably became familiar and proficient in its use when he worked in theaters painting scenery. It’s cheap, easy to make, and dries fast. Because it uses hide glue as a binder and a pot of it will set up like gelatin, distemper is applied warm. Like gouache, it dries several shades lighter than applied.

Cardboard was a favorite material for Vuillard, since it was so affordable and absorbent. In combination with the matte distemper, he used it to emphasize the flat decorative qualities of his painting. Brown cardboard also acted as a unifying ground for his painting.

Vuillard’s Place Vintimille is an impressive example of a remarkable artist using ordinary materials, the equivalent of shirt cardboard and poster paints.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

This post was originally titled “Distemper: No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this Screen”, which a reader informed us was clearly erroneous as the hide glue used in distemper certainly implies the demise of the owner of said hide. -ed.

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. Continue reading

Degas and Pastels: Part I

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancers in Rose, c. 1900. Pastel on paper, 33 1/8 x 22 7/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Seth K. Sweetser Fund.

Because I work in pastels, I am particularly interested in seeing how other artists use this often underappreciated medium. Our current Degas exhibition features numerous works by the artist in pastel.

What were some of the qualities that attracted Degas to pastels? Unlike oil paint, pastel can be used spontaneously and has no preparation or drying time. It is a very direct material and permits the artist to make changes readily–important qualities for an artist like Degas who prized the ability to leave evidence of his decision making process on the surface.

Degas worked almost exclusively in pastel beginning in 1876 during a period of financial instability in his family. The works that Degas produced in pastel were more marketable than some of his works in other media such as painting, printmaking, and sculpture. In a letter to a friend, Degas referred to the necessity of doing some small pastels “to earn my dog’s life.” Though his use of pastels originated in necessity, they became his favorite material. Degas created over 700 pastels, more than in any other medium that he explored. Always a restless experimenter, Degas pushed the medium to its expressive limits. Continue reading