Millet

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of French pastels. Pastels are a fragile medium: fine paper is vulnerable to light, and chalky pigments are prone to fading and smudging. For a short moment of time, these works were taken out of protective storage and displayed for all to see, and I appreciate the opportunity to admire them.

Cassatt

All works of art are handmade, but these pastel drawings seemed more immediate and tactile than paintings or sculptures. A brush stands between an artist and her paints, but pastels are held directly in an artist’s hand. The smudginess of pastels make them a perfect medium for landscape and portraiture, as they handily capture the fuzzy nuance of clouds, foliage, and skin tones. Looking at the blurred lines of these drawings, I could easily imagine the hands–indeed, the very fingers–that drew and blended them.

Mary Cassatt's pastel box

My favorite item in the exhibit wasn’t a drawing but an artifact: a well-used box of pastels formerly owned by Mary Cassatt. J is a long-time admirer of Cassatt, and before I knew him, he decorated his guest bathroom–now my bathroom–with prints of her paintings. You have to get your hands dirty to draw with pastels, so seeing tangible proof of the mess Cassatt made with her drawing supplies was thrilling, like seeing Virginia Woolf’s ink-stained hands in The Hours. Fine art can seem like an abstract or heady thing, but any individual artwork was created by a flesh-and-blood human. Mary Cassatt’s pastel box was a tangible reminder of the actual hands that drew her works.

Click here for more photos from the MFA’s French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault, which closes this weekend.