From Degas to Redon – rare pastels

rare pastels
Paul Gauguin, Le sculpteur Aubé et son fils Emile. Pastel, 1882. © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

Rare? Did you say rare? Yes, I said rare! This is a rare exhibition of rare pastels and thus one you should not miss.

The Petit Palais is delighted to present for the first time a group of 130 rare pastels, all from its own collection of 200 works. This will be a rare opportunity for visitors to discover a relatively little known segment of the history of the medium through a panorama of the main artistic trends of the second half of the 19th century, from Impressionism to Symbolism. Apart from a few frequently reproduced examples, these extremely fragile works have never been on public display before; and after this special six-month showing they will go back into storage as pastels are fragile and cannot be exposed to light or the vibrations caused by transport.  It is also rare to have an exhibition based on a technique rather than an artist and rare to have one that crosses over such a significant time span.

Rare pastels
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, La Princesse Radziwill (1781-1808). Pastel et sanguine, vers 1800-1801. © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

The gold age of pastel is usually considered to be the eighteenth century; the time of the great portrait artists Rosalba Carriera (1674-1757) and Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788). Their successors however looked mostly to other media. The next generation, Ingres and David, shunned pastel, but then in the course of the nineteenth century, the rare pastel gradually becomes an autonomous genre, appreciated by romantic artists like Léon Riesener and realistic painters who use this technique for varied subjects. It was in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, that the pastel had a real revival hence the choice of time period for this exhibition.

The layout of the exhibition is organized in five sections. Both chronological and thematic, it focuses on presenting the different aesthetic trends and their circle of artists; it shows how the pastel, once a sketching and experimental tool, becomes a form of modernity. The exhibition begins in 1800 with the portrait of Princess Radziwill by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and ends in 1930 with The Roseraie by Ker-Xavier Roussel, but the vast majority of the works exhibited date from years 1860 to 1920. The founding of the Society of French Pastellists in 1885, the pavilion that the Society built at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, and the backing of such great art critics as Roger Marx and Henry Havard, enabled pastel to become a medium in its own right. Visitors will discover the jewels of the collection with unknown impressionist works by Berthe Morisot, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and the more worldly art of James Tissot, Jacques-Émile Blanche, Victor Prouvé or Pierre Carrier-Belleuse. The high point of this collection is a very beautiful set of Symbolist works by artists like Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Charles Léandre, Alphonse Osbert, Émile-René Ménard and several remarkable pastels of Odilon Redon.

The viewing itinerary also includes a hands-on initiation into the medium – its actual substance and infinitely seductive colours – together with a tribute to the work of contemporary artist Irving Petlin as proof of pastel’s enduring success.

Rare pastels
Alphonse Osbert, Le lyrisme de la forêt, 1910. Pastel. © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

The exhibition is also an opportunity to introduce visitors to pastel technique and the question of conservation of works on paper which are particularly sensitive to the effects of light and which can not therefore be permanently exposed. Pastel is infinitely seductive by its texture and its colors. It allows a great speed of execution and translates a great stylistic variety. The impressionists appreciated it for spontaneity and the ease of working outdoors, Victor Prouvé demonstrated how well suited pastel was to the female complexion with a powdery, velvety look. Mme Vigée-Lebrun for its portability, Degas for its texture. The Symbolist painters were particularly fond of pastel for its colors, strange harmonies,  elusive mistiness of texture giving vent to their emotions and their dreams, expressing an inner reality. Pastel was also less expensive than oils. Pastel can be used for the simple colored sketch, often a preparatory step to paintings, but also for completed works. The pastel is the crossroads of the drawing and painting.

Pastel Paris
Berthe Morisot, Dans le parc. Pastel, vers 1874. © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

Before you go be sure to download the free app (in English and French) so you will be guided by the voice of the curator and discover pastels, artist and styles beyond the presented works. To better appreciate the rareness and exceptional approach of this exhibition the visitor can also follow, in video, the step by step restoration of the pastel Tender Confession by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse. Interviews with the Commissioner, Gaëlle Rio, as well as the artist Irving Petlin propose an aesthetic and technical vision of pastel, an infinitely attractive material by the brilliance of its colors. 

Until 8 April at the Petit Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill – 75008 Paris. Closed Mondays.


Built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, the Petit Palais, masterpiece of the architect Charles Girault, became the Museum of Fine Arts of the City of Paris in 1902. It presents a very beautiful collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and works of art dating from Antiquity to 1914.

Rare pastels
Charles-Lucien Léandre, Sur champ d’or, 1897. Pastel. © Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet