When my mother got permission to see the 18th-century pastels in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden, the curator walked her through the public galleries to a set of locked doors. Behind them, out of sight of museum visitors, hung the first Rosalba Carriera pastels I had ever seen. Did I fall in love with the luminous quality of pastels or with the notion that we were being allowed into sealed-off galleries? Whatever the case in 1970, in 2011 I was excited to be back in the presence of Carriera, this time in galleries open to the public at the Met.
My first thought was ‘should all these people be walking past?” The Dresden curator had been very adamant about that — the vibration of visitors tromping by could over time jar loose the tiny specks of dust that make the magic of pastels. And the second thought was “why aren’t any of these paintings familiar?” The reason mother had taken me to Dresden was because she was writing a book. A portrait painter herself, she had fallen in love with pastels and, finding little to nothing about its heyday in Europe, she decided to compile a coffee-table book herself. Living in Italy at the time, she confined herself to museums in Europe which explains why none of the works on display at the Met are in mother’s book: The Met’s “Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th Century Europe” draws all but six works from private and public collections in New York. The non-New York pieces come from Massachusetts and Connecticut from what I can tell — though there is mention of a London collection in the press materials which would seem to violate the curators’ insistence on pastels not traveling by air.
All of which brings us back to vibrations and the vulnerability of this medium. Look carefully at some of the works and you can spot here and there a place where the dust has become unsettled. On the whole though, the show bears witness to the durability of pastels assuming they are handled very carefully (and preferably not at all) and to the medium’s luminous beauty. In some ways pastels work on the same principle as pointillist paintings: dots of pure color placed side by side to create, when viewed at a distance, an image. The difference is that, since the dots in pastel are microscopic, you don’t have to stand far away to, quite literally, get the picture. And what a picture: the cheeks of children, the lace of ladies’ clothes, the fur on men’s coats — you want to reach out and touch them. And then there are the tricks some artists use — like adding a bit of watercolor here and there to deepen the shadows and add extra depth. It has been 40 years since my mother published her coffee-table book because she could find no central source of information and images on 18th century pastels. Had this show and catalog and website information existed then, my mother would have been ecstatic. But then she would not have felt compelled to visit the closed-off galleries of museums across Europe and given her daughter the thrill of discovering the magical beauty that hung behind locked doors.