Pastels at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Jean-François Millet, French, 1814-1875
19th century, (c. 1870-1874)
Pastel and conté crayon
Sheet: 695 x 937 mm. (27 3/8 x 36 7/8 in.)
The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1964.24

Last Saturday I braved a little snow storm to go to the Baltimore Museum of Art to hear Rena Hoisington, one of the Museum's Print and Drawing Curators speak about the history of the pastel medium. Glad I did.

Above is a photo of Rena talking about one of the most amazing pieces in the BMA's Collection, a big Millet pastel of a woman standing out with her sheep in a moonlit field. Rena is an expert on pastels and is a specialist on 18th century French work in the medium, in particular the work of Maurice-Quentin de la Tour who she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on.

Art historians are a hoot. They share with artists almost lunatic levels of enthusiasm for particular artists from the past. The less well known artists can often be especially delighting to learn about, so it is a good idea to listen to what art historians have to say. They know a different side of the art world than do studio artists. Rena, no slouch in this department, knows her stuff.

One of the things she pointed out is that Millet's pastels were a big influence on the other later 19th century French painters like Degas, which I hadn't realized before. The BMA's Millet Shepperdess is an amazing piece. It has a mysterious restrained light from the moon that just kisses the lightly sketched-in backs of the individual sheep. In it Millet achieves a remarkable solidity with his flock of sheep, hardly employing any details at all. It's a triumph of understatement. The shepperdess stands in a humble and yet quietly monumental pose. Millet adds a wonderful series of unexpected shapes to her figure by adjusting how her cloak opens down her front. Like any really good draughtsman, Millet has a superb eye for design.

Another thing Rena talked about was that pastel was only able to flourish when it did in the 18th century because of advances that were made in the late 1600's in manufacturing glass in larger and more clear sheets. Pastel's strength is its amazing texture- dusty, crumbling, and always ready to smear- that gives it an unrivaled richness of surface. But it is like making a deal with the devil as it comes with a cost- pastel being extremely susceptible to being bumped or rubbed. It literally has to be framed under glass if it is to be out on display.

For me as a long time painter, discovering pastel was a huge shot in the arm color-wise. Below is one of my pastels drawn on location in Edward Hopper's former painting studio on Cape Cod during one of my residencies there (my wife and I will be returning for our 13th stay there this Fall). It is the view standing in his diminutive kitchen looking toward Hopper's bedroom. What had caught my eye about the scene was the light flowing into the room from the doorway at the right that leads to Hopper's painting room. The doorways in the house have the original oversized black metal doorknobs that set up a counter rhythm to the broad wooden planes of the white doors. Pastel is a perfect medium for this piece as it allows me to make the strokes of my crosshatching quite prominent as they change direction across the paper.

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom, pastel, 14 x 7", 2004

Below is a pastel I used to study color possibilities for a large oil painting that is out in Washington State right now in the Clymer Museum of Art's showing of my nationally traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. (In fact, I'd better cut this short as I have to go pack to fly out there tomorrow for the opening reception at the Museum and to give a talk at nearby Central Washington University).

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, pastel, 10 x 8", 2007

And finally below is one of my earlier pastels that served as the basis of a large oil painting of the same title.

Philip Koch, The Promise, pastel, 8 x 10", 2000


  1. Thanks, I didn't realize Hopper's painting studio was in Truro!

  2. Hey, Philip! You'll be in my neck of the woods. Think about my little eastern WA studio when you fly over.

    Have a good time at the exhibit.

  3. Hi Philip,

    I came across your work last year and was interested in it for a number of reasons. I dropped you an email and found out from you that you were having a show at the Cape Cod Art Museum. I did go see the show and liked it very much.

    I spend the summer on Cape Cod painting and was fascinated to see that you actually spend time in Hopper's studio. I like the small pastel that you did in the house. It would be nice to see your interpretations of Hopper's personal space.

  4. Linda,

    Thanks for your kind words.
    I'll post some of the other paintings I've done of the interior of Edward Hopper's studio before too long (have to digitize the old 35mm slides of those pieces).

  5. I like Pastel Arts very much. Its a very good talent to be cultivated.

  6. After looking at a few of the blog articles on your website, I
    seriously like your technique of writing a blog.
    I book marked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back in the near future.
    Please check out my website too and tell me your opinion.

    My homepage :: Darnell Leslie


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Intriguing Josephine Tota Exhibition at Memorial Art Gallery

Talking about Hopper & Burchfield- Delaware Art Museum

My Burchfield Residency- What I Learned