SAN FRANCISCO — When Furio Rinaldi was hired in May 2020 to become the new curator of drawings and prints at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), the de Young and Legion of Honor museums were still closed due to COVID-19. Making the best of a bad situation, Rinaldi took a deep dive into FAMSF’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts collection. What emerged is a satisfying long-look exhibition on the power of pastels from the 16th century to the 21st, mostly drawn from FAMSF’s own permanent collection, along with loans from a handful of others in Northern California. Rarely on display, and even more rarely on loan (Berthe Morisot’s fabulous portrait of her niece, “Blanche,” for example, hasn’t been exhibited since 1896), pastels are the neglected child in the family of painting. An overlooked and even scorned medium — too slight, too bright, too effete, too fun, (too feminine?) — pastels have a PR problem that Color Into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor goes a long way in correcting.
The show opens with sober Italian drawings from the 16th century, but quickly pivots to bright Rococo portraits by artists such as Rosalba Carriera and Jean-Étienne Liotard (who both include two very winning dog companions). Ground pigment mixed with a binder to create a colored stick had been in use since the early 16th century to sketch underdrawings for oil paintings, as witnessed by the show’s opening pieces. Artists made such sticks themselves until the mid-17th century when they came into limited production. By the early 18th-century there was an eager market for commercial pastels. Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera — known in her lifetime as “The Queen of Pastel” — helped invigorate that market by pioneering a new style of painting, utilizing pastels.
Pastels have an immediacy and sensuousness perfect for portraiture, Carriera’s most usual subject. The soft powdery surface they leave behind gives richness and texture to fabrics, and when depicting human skin, pastels fur the flesh in a way that’s remarkably lifelike. You sense the little follicles of humanity, the makeup and the dust, the artifice and the natural that comprise us all. No wonder the medium has appealed to so many artist over so many centuries, as Color Into Line elegantly reveals, from 18th-century artists like Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and her father, Louis Vigée, to 19th-century Impressionist stalwarts such as Manet, Degas, Cassatt, and Gonzales, onto 20th-century names like Redon, Rivera, Mitchell, Diebenkorn, Thiebaud and many more. The exhibition’s most recent piece, a multi-figure pandemic scene by Donna Anderson Kam, was acquired from the de Young Open in late 2020.
A somewhat understated, but clear through line of the show is the predominance of women artists working in pastel (the reasons are numerous, including portability; no need for smelly solvents; belief that pastels were, like makeup, somehow “natural” to women, etc). There are approximately three women artists included in each gallery, which can feel a little like too-careful tokenism, but on the other hand I can’t think of another exhibition spanning so many centuries that includes so many women artists with ease. It’s time to see women artists incorporated into the broader art historical narrative rather than set apart (and set aside).
Color Into Line is well worth seeing for any number of art historical reasons — a quick primer on European art from the Renaissance to today; the reevaluation of a significant medium; the reinsertion of women artists into the canon. But maybe most significantly, pastels are damned beautiful. They’re lush, radiating color and quickness and energy. A kind of eye candy, they are an indulgence for the senses. Pastels can offer pure pleasure, which is in short supply.
Color Into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present continues at the Legion of Honor Museum (100 34th Avenue, San Francisco) through February 13, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Furio Rinaldi.