RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The word fugitive is in the air at the National Gallery of Art in Washington - on the walls too. It's not a show about someone running from the cops. It's a show about an artistic medium that's hard to pin down. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Where are you going?
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: NPR's esteemed arts critic, the always inquisitive Bob Mondello.
I'm going to the National Gallery.
STAMBERG: Au contraire, Mr. Mondello, this exhibition of pastels - it's called the "Touch Of Color" - isn't at all boring. Maybe because we got stubby pieces of chalk in kindergarten, we grow up to think pastel is not much of a medium. But the 64 examples from the National Gallery's own collection demonstrate why artists have always loved it.
PAUL RICHARD: If you were commissioned to paint a portrait of some prosperous person, if you were going to do it in oil, they had to come to your studio.
STAMBERG: Former Washington Post art critic Paul Richard tells pastel's advantages over oil paint.
RICHARD: You had to have stinky solvents around so you could clean your brushes. You had to wait till one little passage of the painting dried sufficiently so you could add another or - pastels are a lot easier.
STAMBERG: You could work quickly. And pastel sticks - a blend of colored pigment, chalk and a binder-like gum - pastels are portable, carried around easily. But, says Kaywin Feldman, National Gallery director, they're hard to exhibit.
KAYWIN FELDMAN: They're very rarely loaned from other museums or to other museums because the medium is so very delicate.
STAMBERG: It smudges. The chalk's powdery colors are fugitive. They don't stick to one place very easily. Degas, the great French pastelist - yes, it's a noun - fixed his colors with casein, basically skim milk. Those glorious ballerinas, racehorses, nudes were lactose tolerant. Artists have used anything, even hairspray, to hold powdery pastel onto the paper. The sticks produced pale, pale colors, lots of white mixed in, and intense colors that made fabrics look rich and gorgeous. Also...
STACEY SELL: It was perfect for flawless human skin.
STAMBERG: Curator Stacey Sell.
SELL: And in fact, some art historians have pointed out that some of the materials and pigments that are present in pastel were also present in human cosmetics at the time.
STAMBERG: Carmine, for instance, a bright red pigment used in rouge and pastel. Skin on the bare back of a woman in William Merritt Chase's 1888 "Study Of Flesh Color And Gold" sheds its own light. It almost glows.
SELL: It's one of my favorite things in the entire exhibition. The modeling on this woman's back is so beautifully subtle. And it really shows off that soft, velvety texture that we've been talking about. It's just absolutely seamlessly blended.
STAMBERG: Chase, Degas, Manet, Matisse, more contemporary artists like Jasper Johns - all pastel fans. Mary Cassatt and several other women used the chalky sticks to draw women in fancy hats, women making art. Curator Sells says pastels were once thought to be especially appropriate for women.
SELL: People considered it easier to learn to use than oil painting. They thought it was simpler. They considered it cleaner. There's one theorist who said it was better for women to use because they wouldn't soil their fair hands the way that they would with oil paint.
STAMBERG: In fact, pastels have been gender-friendly throughout the ages, as you can see until the end of January at the National Gallery. The exhibition is called the "Touch Of Color." And you want to touch the works, dying to touch them. But, nuh-uh (ph).
SELL: Pastel appeals to our sense of touch in a way that no other drawing medium really does. I mean, you want to reach out and touch this velvety surface. And at the same time, you know that it would ruin exactly what you're admiring.
STAMBERG: As French philosopher Paul Desjardins put it in 1889, pastel is the lightest, most fugitive of techniques, like the pollen of a lily or the dust from a butterfly's wing that an artist scatters and fixes on the paper.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURQUOISE")
JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) In the pastel shades of sunlight I have wandered.
STAMBERG: In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURQUOISE")
BAEZ: (Singing) I know I've tasted the essence in those few...
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