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Chalk & Pastel
Detail of Cassatt pastel as seen through the microscope. The field of view is 3/4" in diameter.

Chalk & Pastel

By the early nineteenth century, commercially fabricated chalk had largely replaced mined natural chalk as a drawing material. Fabricated chalk is composed of powdered pigments and clay bound with a weak adhesive. Pastel, a soft form of fabricated chalk, was popularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and brings to mind the brilliant painterly compositions by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Fabricated chalks, including pastel, are characterized by a velvety matte surface imparted by the densely deposited pigment; appearance can vary from distinct lines to areas of seamless blending. The detail at the left illustrates the velvety surface of pastel.

First mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci in 1499, pastels were developed further during the sixteenth century and commercially manufactured by the eighteenth century when the taste for pastel portraiture became widespread. To produce pastels and fabricated chalks, pigments were typically combined with white clay, then formed into a paste with a dilute binder, rolled into sticks, and air-dried. Various binders have been used, but by the nineteenth century a plant gum (gum tragacanth) was referred to most frequently. In Mary Cassatt’s time, a richly colored palette of pastels, as well as papers and canvases prepared with highly textured surfaces, were available for purchase. The artist can blend the pastel with brushes, fingers, chamois, or a rolled paper stump.

Shown above from left to right are a pastel stick, rolled chamois, paper stump and brush.


Examples from the Collection


Bust of Female Figure
Bust of Female Figure, c. 1814
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, French
Black and white chalks on blue wove paper
Sheet: 11 x 8 5/8 inches (27.9 x 21.9 cm)
The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986
[ More Details ]

The art of Pierre-Paul Prud'hon was inspired by artists like Michelangelo and Correggio. In contrast to the popular taste for pastel or crayon, Prud'hon preferred to use black and white chalk on blue paper for his masterly drawings in the academic tradition, among them, Bust of Female Figure. Here the artist applied chalk over a charcoal preliminary sketch, blending the chalks with a "stump" of tightly rolled paper. He then overlaid the blended areas with delicate vertical lines, further modeling the sensual nude figure as she gracefully arches her arm over her head. The blue paper, which has faded and discolored to green, provides a mid-tone for Prud'hon, allowing him to develop form through highlights and shadows. When viewed with magnification (but not visible to the naked eye) blue paper fibers are seen, distributed throughout the sheet of paper.

In the Loge
In the Loge, c. 1879
Mary Stevenson Cassatt, American
Pastel with gold metallic paint on canvas
Sheet: 25 9/16 × 31 3/4 inches (64.9 × 80.6 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Sargent McKean, 1950
[ More Details ]

In In The Loge, Mary Cassatt enlivened soft, blended passages with brilliant touches of fresh pastel and bold strokes of metallic paint in the fan. She frequently used moisture to fix or compact underlying applications of pastel, allowing her to create a multi-layered surface with the final powdery layers sitting lightly on the top. Through the years she worked in pastel on a variety of supports including paper, paper adhered to canvas and canvas alone. The canvas used here was coated with a ground embedded with pumice or coarse fibers to create a rough surface that holds the powdery medium more securely. This is one of several works by Cassatt that Degas owned and kept in his studio until his death.

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