“L’art du pastel de Degas à Redon”

Petit Palais - Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris
Avenue Winston Churchill
September 15–April 8

Charles-Lucien Léandre, Sur champ d’or (On a Field of Gold), 1897, pastel, 64 x 45".

This sumptuous exhibition of pastel works from the museum’s collection offers up a virtuosic and refreshing display of the fragile medium’s myriad strengths, which have been valued since the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, pastel crayons presented new avenues for technical and formal experimentation, as pastellistes, painters, and printmakers harnessed their friable yet velvety texture to capture nuance and ephemeral effects, creating drawings that rivaled and sometimes even surpassed oil painting in their scale and impact. Paradoxically, it is the luminosity imparted by this putatively mat and sometimes waxy medium that makes the more than 120 works on view so engrossing.

While the title of the exhibition points to acknowledged masters, works by less familiar figures, including Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Charles-Lucien Léandre, and Alfred Roll, are revelatory. After a historical preface featuring a lovely portrait head by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (La Princesse Radziwill, 1800–1801) and Jean-Baptiste-Auguste Leloir’s strikingly ashen Mort de Saint Joseph (Death of Saint Joseph), 1870, a life-size, quasi-monochromatic study of a dancer by Fernand Pelez (Danseuse mettant son collant, jambe gauche levee [Dancer Putting on Her Tights, Left Leg Raised], 1905)—one of two pieces by the artist here—signals a more modern turn. The remaining rooms feature a mix of portraits, landscapes, and figural allegories that scintillate with crepuscular tones and pearlescent highlights. Nudes such as Pierre Carrier-Belleuse’s Sur le sable de la dune (On the Sand Dune), 1896, exemplify the louche, feminine cast of a material that was once thought to be as sensitive as flesh and as expressive as butterfly wings. In contrast, Émile René Ménard’s undated Harmonie du soir en vert (Evening Harmony in Green) demonstrates its power to create an abstract, tonal idyll.

Leslie Cozzi