Pastels, the chalky crayon-like sticks embraced by, most famously, Edgar Degas, who drew ballerinas with them, and Wayne Thiebaud, whose pastel cakes have charmed many a sweet tooth, have inspired a comprehensive museum exhibition. On view at the Legion of Honor through Feb. 13, the show details the history of the pastel and illustrates the medium’s creative possibilities. It also contains dozens of stellar artworks.
As the title suggests, the exhibit, “Color Into Line: Pastels From the Renaissance to the Present,” covers centuries of pastel art. It features more than 70 works by artists whose names add up to a who’s who of giants. The majority of these pieces come from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Because of their fragility, pastel works aren’t often exhibited or lent, so a show of this sort is rare.
“Pastels convey the immediacy of a drawing, the appearance of a painting and the matte finish of a fresco” is how the Fine Arts Museums’ Furio Rinaldi, who curated the show, describes what museumgoers will see.
Display cases near the entrance introduce the pastel, whose composition — ground pigment, a dry filler (kaolin or chalk) and a binder (traditionally a vegetable gum) — as well as usage have changed little over time.
Presented chronologically, the exhibit begins with the Renaissance. A drawing in natural hues, “Head of a Veiled Woman, Looking Down” (1540), by Bernardino Lanino, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci, is a subtle work of lines and shades that illustrates the expressive potential of drawing.
In the 18th century, portraitists were discovering the intimacy and nuance that pastels make possible. Exemplifying this quality is a centerpiece attraction, “Portrait of a Man and his Dog” (1746-1750), a graceful work newly attributed to premier portraitist Jean-Etienne Liotard.
Deserving her own wall in the show is Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera, whose works include the exquisite “Portrait of a Lady as Diana” (1720), and who helped get pastel portraiture accepted as a serious art form. Carriera’s immense success, both critical and popular, helped other female artists, including some featured in the exhibition, make their mark. (Every gallery in the exhibit includes pieces by at least three female artists.)
Nineteenth-century works include still lifes, landscapes and domestic scenes. The development of a stable green pastel inspired some artists to work in the medium.
Selections include “Prosper” (1882), Albert Bartholome’s realistic portrait of his nephew; Edmond-Francois Aman-Jean’s “Les Confidences” (1898), a work that contains dynamically complementary reds and greens and stirs interest in the narrative behind the title; and Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Sewing Lesson” (1860), another work that illustrates the intimacy that pastels can achieve.
Pastels proved popular with the impressionists, who found that creating a picture in pastel was faster than painting with oils and that pastels allowed for a freer working process.
Degas, one of impressionism’s foremost pastelists, creates a sense of immediacy and spontaneity in “Dancers” (1895) and “Seated Bather Drying Her Neck” (1905-1910).
Other impressionists working in pastel include Mary Cassatt (“Sarah in a Large Flowered Hat, Holding Her Dog,” 1901; “Bust of a Young Woman, 1885-1890); Eva Gonzales (“The Woman in Pink,” 1849); Berthe Morisot (“Toilette,” 1873); and Camille Pissarro “The Road to Ennery” (1874).
In the modern-era galleries, Odilon Redon (“Orpheus,” 1905), who depicted mythological and fantastical subjects, creates a sense of darkness and mystery with his deep-blue proto-surrealist “Orpheus” (1906).
Marsden Hartley’s Picasso-like untitled seated male nude (1923) uses line, color, form and technique to create a quietly affecting portrait of flesh-and-blood humanness. Could any medium other than pastel have achieved this?
California artists have a section in the show. Those who have lived and worked in the Bay Area include Thiebaud, known for his ample use of pigment and his depictions of everyday objects. On view are “Various Pastels” (1972), in which Thiebaud has drawn, using actual pastels, a picture of some pastel sticks, and “Two and One-Half Cakes” (1972), one of his appealing pictures of layer cakes.
Other featured local artists include Enrique Chagoya, whose “Thesis/Antithesis” (1989) addresses the dynamics between the oppressor and oppressed. Also look for Rupert Garcia’s “Calavera Cristobal”; sketchbook items by Richard Diebenkorn; and contemporary artist Donna Anderson Kam’s “dateline: (08-07) 16:22 PDT Trona, CA (AP)” (2020), a picture of a youth homeless encampment.
Also on the all-star bill are pastel works by Salvador Dali, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, Joan Mitchell and Diego Rivera, to name just a handful.
IF YOU GO: Color Into Line: Pastels From the Renaissance to the Present
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; closed Monday; through Feb. 13
Admission: $10 to $25
Contact: (415) 750-3600, legionofhonor.org