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
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