Whoever said, "You're never too old to learn" sure had that right. I went through college, taught art 26 years, and wrote about art for a year or two after that before I was reliably informed by those in a position to know, that the medium of pastels, which I'd always considered a drawing medium, was in fact, considered painting. Want another cliché? "Ya learn something new every day." My first reaction was, isn't all dry art media considered drawing (and if they're nothing else, pastels certainly are dry)?
I'm not talking oil pastels here, by the way. I mean good, old-fashioned, dry pigment with equally dry and old-fashioned calcium carbonate (chalk) and just a touch of gum tragacanth (not quite so dry) to hold the whole dusty mess together. Okay, so, applying them is very much like painting. Blending them is too. The surface is usually paper but aside from that, there is very much a painterly quality to them. But they're so...well...dry.
Okay, so you paint with them--live and learn. I've tried them a few times and wrestled with them in the classroom with students for many years. Never cared much for them though...too dusty and fragile for my tastes...but I have always admired those who could stand to use them and use them well. And one of the first of these was Rosalba Carriera.
Rosalba was born in Venice, Italy in 1675. Little is known of her early life nor how she came to pick up her amazing talent with pastels, not to mention oils; which she handled with similar ease in the demanding art of miniature portrait painting. Pastels were brand new at the time, probably a French invention, and inasmuch as Venice was a trade port, it's not surprising they turned up there first in Italy. They've always been considered something of a women's art medium, at least until Degas embraced them in the late 1800s. Men did their painting in oil.
At first, pastels were reserved for the quick, colour sketches for which they were designed. But gradually, because of the speed with which they could be used, they became popular with those lacking the time and patience to sit for an oil portrait. And, being done on paper, not to mention mostly by women, they were no doubt cheaper than oils. But Carriera not only proved the equal to any male portrait painter in Venice, but also proved pastels the equal of oils in their richness, colour, and handling. She was accepted as one of the few female members of the Guild of St. Luke (doctors and artists) and later, the French Academy.
One of her best works, Self-portrait with a Portrait of her Sister, done in 1709 after she took up residence in Paris, was something of an advertisement. She worked with her sister, whom she herself had taught to paint, in managing quite a busy portrait workshop. The pastel painting (I still have trouble with that concept) depicts the rather plain face of the artist, no doubt made up to look her best, attired in satin and lace, blending tool in hand, showing off the portrait of her slightly more attractive sister. Most of her other female portraits are a good deal more glamorous, even erotic, with deeply plunging décolletage and even the occasional bare breast. Her Young Lady with a Parrot is more typical.
Rosalba Carriera is credited with having greatly popularised the medium of pastels in France during the early 1700s; and with introducing, perhaps even instructing, the renowned French pastel artist, Maurice Quentin de la Tour, to the use of pastels as a portrait medium. Tragically, perhaps as a result of years spent straining to paint miniature portraits, her eyesight failed her the last ten years of her life. She died in 1757 at the age of 81. Along with her long-time friend, Antoine Watteau, whom she also portrayed in pastels, the two of them were considered the leading French portrait artists of the Rococo era.