Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present

Jun 29, 2021

Painting of person bathing

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Femme s’essuyant (Seated Bather Drying Her Neck), ca. 1905–1910. Signed with the artist’s stamp (L. 658). Charcoal and pastel on two joined sheets of tracing paper, laid down on board, 27 1/16 x 22 7/8 in. (68.7 x 58.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Gift of Mrs. John Jay Ide, 1995.62

Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present
Legion of Honor \ October 9, 2021–February 13, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the “Museums”) are proud to present Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present, a celebration of the artistry of pastel through rarely seen holdings from the Museums’ Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, as well as prominent collections from Northern California. Through eighty masterworks, the exhibition traces the technical evolution of pastel, from its introduction in 16th-century Europe to works created as recently as 2020. Highlighting the creative process behind the works, the exhibition emphasizes pastel’s versatility over five centuries of human creativity, through drawings by Rosalba Carriera, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, Diego Rivera, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, John Altoon, Rupert García, and Joan Mitchell. 

Color into Line celebrates the exquisite art of pastel and the way that artists, from the Renaissance to the present day, have explored its delicate and unique effects,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Drawing heavily on the riches of our Achenbach Collection for Graphic Arts, the exhibition brings fresh light and scholarship to a medium that is often overlooked because such works are so fragile and rarely lent and displayed.”

One of the most long-standing media in art history, pastel has maintained a formulation almost unchanged since its emergence in the Renaissance. Composed of finely ground pigments, a dry filler (kaolin or chalk), and a binder (traditionally a vegetable gum), pastels are still used today in much the same way as when they first appeared. Examining the technical process of creation, the exhibition pays specific attention to the medium’s materiality, looking at techniques shared by artists across centuries.

“In a singular combination, pastels convey the immediacy of a drawing, the appearance of a painting, and the matte finish of a fresco,” states Furio Rinaldi, Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Color into Line shows some of the greatest hits from our collection while unearthing hidden gems from our neighboring institutions, like the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and SFMOMA, revealing to audiences the incredible richness of our local graphic holdings.”

Laid out in chronological order, and accompanied by an exhibition catalogue, Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present provides visitors with the rare opportunity to savor various masterpieces from public and private collections across Northern California, many on view for the first time. One such work, the nearly life-size Portrait of a Man and His Dog (possibly Philippe Basset de la Marelle, 1709–1779) (ca. 1746–1750), has been newly attributed to Jean-Étienne Liotard, one of the masters of pastels in the 18th century, due to new technical and stylistic evidence unearthed during research for this exhibition. It is on view for the first time since its acquisition in 1965. 

Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present is the first exhibition organized by Furio Rinaldi, the Museums’ newly appointed curator of drawings and prints. It is on view at the Legion of Honor from October 9, 2021, through February 13, 2022.

In Detail
The emergence of pastel dates to the early 16th century, when our exhibition begins. An early drawing by a follower of Leonardo da Vinci, Bernardino Lanino, (Head of a Veiled Woman, Looking Down, ca. 1540,) on loan from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art), attests the use of natural colored chalks in Renaissance Italy. By the 17th century, the fabricated pastel stick had become a popular choice for independent works of art, particularly portraits. Prominently displayed at the center of this room is the large portrait newly attributed to Jean-Étienne Liotard, with evidence substantiating the attribution. In the early 18th century, the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (Portrait of a Lady as Diana, ca. 1720) brought the medium to unprecedented popularity, and her pastel portraits achieved great critical and commercial success across Europe. In notable exception of its statute against admitting women, the Académie Royal in Paris accepted Carriera as a member in 1720.

Moving on to the next gallery, the exhibition looks at landscapes and still lifes from 1800 to 1900. The challenge with the expansion of pastel use in genres outside of portraiture lay simply in obtaining a stable color of green. When such a green was finally introduced in the late 18th century, a new range of artistic possibilities opened. Key works in this gallery include Albert Bartholome’s portrait of his nephew, Prosper, (1882); the monumental panel by Edmond-François Aman-Jean’s Les Confidences (ca. 1898); and Jean-François Millet’s The Sewing Lesson (ca. 1860), on rare loan from the Crocker Art Museum. Millet was a key figure in transforming the medium of pastel by applying its intimate scale to a variety of domestic and rural subjects.

The era of Impressionism marked a powerful resurgence of pastel across Europe and the United States, especially in the hands of Edgar Degas, represented by two late masterpieces, Femme s’essuyant (Seated Bather Drying Her Neck) (ca. 1905–1910) and Dancers (Danseuses) (ca. 1895). More portable and suited to work en plein air, pastels could be executed far more quickly than oil painting, reducing the time required for posing—allowing Impressionists to capture elusive qualities of their subjects. Diverging radically from the painterly style of the Impressionists, these artists preferred a looser, sketch-like appearance that infused the work with vibrant, lifelike qualities. A crowning moment of this section is a striking array of pastels by Eva Gonzalès (La Femme en rose [Jeanne Gonzales], 1849), Mary Cassatt (Sarah in a Large Flowered Hat, Holding Her Dog, ca. 1901), and Berthe Morisot (Toilette, 1873).

Due to its dual nature of drawing and painting, pastel became a favorite medium of artists of the 20th century, like Salvador Dalí (Oedipus Complex, 1930) and Odilon Redon (Orpheus, 1905), who pushed the medium to a new realm of possibility by experimenting with unprecedented gestural and chromatic freedom. Artists embraced pastel at every step of the creative and design process, as seen in Richard Diebenkorn’s blocking of early ideas in sketchbooks (Page 73 from Sketchbook #8, 1943–1993); Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s use in preparatory studies (Woman in the Studio, ca. 1913); full-scale cartoons by Diego Rivera (Untitled [Head of the figure Music], ca. 1922); and finished works by Joan Mitchell (Pastel, 1991).

Focusing next on the impact of pastels on California artists, the exhibition concludes with a look at the influence of the medium on postwar and contemporary local artists. In these final galleries, visitors are greeted by a monumental drawing by Enrique Chagoya (Thesis/Antithesis, 1989) and a selection of four works by Wayne Thiebaud. A trompe l’oeil by Claudio Bravo (Package, 1967) and a recent acquisition from The de Young Open—Donna Anderson Kam’s large scale dateline: (08-07) 16:22 PDT Trona, CA (AP) (2020), showcasing a homeless youth encampment—joins these works in the final gallery.

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Public Programs

[On-Site] Saturday, October 9, 2021: Impressionist Women and Pastels: Eva Gonzalès, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt \ A conversation with Laura D. Corey
Impressionism marked a resurgence for pastel across Europe and America. Advocating truthfulness and modernity, artists like Morisot, Cassatt, and Gonzalès applied pastel to daring subjects with technical prowess. In doing so, they asserted themselves as formidable artists, transcending and even overturning the medium’s traditional ‘feminine’ connotations. Illustrating their stories, Furio Rinaldi will be in conversation with Laura D. Corey, Cassatt expert and Senior Researcher in the European Paintings Department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[On-Site] Saturday, Nov 6, 2021: Behind Rosalba’s Pastels \ A conversation with Xavier F. Salomon
Rosalba’s pastels captured the essence of her time: sophisticated, mundane, and seductive. Her success, and exceptional admission in the Académie Royal of Paris in 1720, paved the way for women artists of the following generations. Illustrating their stories, Furio Rinaldi will be in conversation with Xavier F. Salomon (Deputy Director and Chief Curator, The Frick Collection), whose discovery of small religious tokens hidden behind Rosalba’s pastels, provides an insight into the artist’s personal world and working practice.

[Virtual] Wednesday, Dec 1, 2021 Making Pastels with Alex Warren \ An Introduction to making Pastels by Alex Warren, owner of Sinopia Pigments & Materials
Through a demonstration, Alex Warren will share how pastels are made from scratch and give an introduction into types of glues, pigments, and chalks that can be used.

Visiting \ Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. The Legion of Honor reopened to the public on May 7, 2021.

More information regarding tickets can be found at

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Presenting Sponsor: Diane B. Wilsey. Lead Sponsor: Barbara A. Wolfe. Generous support is provided by Mrs. George Hopper Fitch, Marie and George Hecksher and the Tavolozza Foundation. Additional support is provided by Maurice W. Gregg and Shelagh and Thomas P. Rohlen.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The Legion of Honor was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

Media Contact
Press Office \ 415.750.3603