A new exhibition, Pastel Revealed, opens at the National Gallery of Ireland this weekend. Here’s what visitors can expect …
Tell us about the pastel collection at the National Gallery …
The pastel collection at the National Gallery of Ireland is a rich and varied one. The first pastel acquired for the collection in 1873 was Edmund Ashfield’s portrait of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, which dates to the 1670s. A splendid set of female heads by the 18th-century Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera arrived later (Milltown Gift, 1902). Two colourful pastels of ballerinas and harlequins by Edgar Degas (Edward Martyn Bequest, 1924) and a landscape by François Millet (Sir Alfred Chester Beatty Gift, 1950) brought the collection in a new direction. Other significant gifts included works by the Lemercier O’Hagan family (presented, 1948), landscapes by Maurice Marinot (presented by his daughter in 1970), and heads by Harry Kernoff (presented by his sister in 1975), all of which are being displayed together in this exhibition for the first time. A fine portrait by Jean Valade (purchased, Shaw Fund, 1961) and a set of portraits of actors by Charles Forrest (purchased, 1991) enhanced the collection even further. The most recent acquisition (purchased, 2022) was a group of six mixed-media scenes from Brian Bourke’s ‘Sweeney’ series, two of which are on display in Pastel Revealed.
Rosalba Carriera (Venice, 1673-1757)
Pastel on blue laid paper
Milltown Gift, 1902, NGI.3849
Is there a theme to the new exhibition “Pastel Revealed”?
Comprising 53 pastels in total by a broad range of artists, the exhibition highlights four centuries of the medium, revealing both pastel’s past achievements and future potential. A number of pastels, along with their highly ornate frames, have been specially conserved for this exhibition. The exhibition not only reveals the unique attributes of the medium but the superb variety of pastels within the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. Pastels cannot be exposed to light for long periods of time, hence are not on permanent display. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view almost half of the Gallery’s pastel collection all at the one time. It showcases an array of captivating portraits, along with some vibrant landscapes. As a medium that requires highly developed skills and disciplined technique, pastels has attracted both major artists and dabblers alike. It is hoped that this exhibition, dedicated to the medium, will encourage people to try their hand at using the medium themselves.
Edgar Degas (Paris, 1834-1917)
Two Ballet Dancers in a Dressing Room, c.1880
Pastel on paper
Bequeathed, Edward Martyn, 1924, NGI.2740
What are some of the highlights from the exhibition?
Swift execution and the ability to produce a sparkling portrait likeness made pastel immensely popular during the 18th century. Superb examples by Rosalba Carriera (Venice, 1673-1757) and Hugh Douglas Hamilton (Dublin, 1740-1808), two of the greatest pastellists of the eighteenth century are included in this display. Rosalba Carriera’s mastery of the medium helped transform pastel into a serious and much-admired art form. Her pastels were notable for their radiant colours and lustrous tones. Such qualities are clearly visible in her allegorical personification of the Four Seasons in this exhibition. Her approach was painterly, using pastel to capture the appearance of rich fabrics and dewy skin, and her work was in vogue among the wealthy Grand Tourists on the continent.
A selection of Hamilton’s small, oval, head and shoulder portraits, which appealed to politicians and aristocrats alike, are shown alongside a couple of his grander-sized works. One such large-scale example is Reclining Woman with Child in an Interior, Naples, c.1789, an intimate scene depicting a woman in déshabillé-style dress, teasing a child with a Neapolitan biscuit. Beyond is the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, outside the city of Naples.
The fashion for the pastel medium declined somewhat in the early nineteenth century, although Edgar Degas explored it extensively later in that century. His richly coloured, multi-layered pastels, with finely drawn and blended areas, still mesmerise viewers to this day. From the 1870s, Degas observed and recorded the graceful gestures and movements of ballerinas in Paris, as they performed onstage and rehearsed behind the scenes. A true highlight of this exhibition is his Two Ballet Dancers in a Dressing Room, c.1880. Degas skilfully renders the textures of their tulle skirts, tied with large blue sashes, as well as the artificial light that illuminates the dancer with her back to the viewer. Using almost abstract, strokes of colour, he pushes the boundaries of the medium. A celebrated work such as this is on a par with any oil painting. The ceramic bowl, made real through a few deft strokes, illustrates Degas’s brilliance in using pastel. These are just a few of the many stellar works within this free exhibition Pastel Revealed.
Need to know: Pastel Revealed runs until June 5 2023 at the National Gallery of Ireland; www.nationalgallery.ie.