With the 1929 bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, the Metropolitan Museum acquired its first pastels—about twenty nineteenth-century works by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet. For forty years, they were shown with our European and American paintings. It was not until 1956 that we were bequeathed a pastel by Jean Pillement (1728–1808). Between 1961 and 1975 we acquired a small group of works by John Russell (1745–1806), and there the matter stood until 2002, when the Metropolitan bought a pastel by the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757). Since then we have purchased nearly a dozen others by Italian, French, British, German, and Danish artists. Most are portraits, and they are exhibited here with two vivid seascapes by Pillement from a private collection. Pastels are made from powdery substances that are fragile and subject to fading. In accordance with modern museum practice, they are exhibited in very low light or rotated to ensure their long-term preservation. This display is therefore a temporary extension of the new installation in the adjoining galleries for European Old Master paintings.
Described by the great Salon critic and encyclopedist Dennis Diderot as no more than dust, pastel owes it distinctive velvety quality to its powdery surface, which reflects diffuse scattered light. Consisting of finely ground pigment and a white mineral extender moistened with a minute quantity of binder (such as oatmeal whey, mineral spirits, and gum tragacanth) rolled into sticks of color, pastels are made in a progression of tints and shades. Pastelists kept hundreds of such crayons on hand. The popularity of pastel—especially for portraiture—swept across Europe and Britain in the eighteenth century. Unlike today, such compositions were regarded as paintings. They were executed in vibrant colors on paper mounted on a wood strainer, elaborately framed with costly glass and on an intimate scale that suited the refined living spaces of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie. These works have retained their original brilliance because the pastel medium does not contain resins and the surfaces of works in pastel were never varnished and rarely fixed, thereby precluding the darkening or yellowing that so often alters the hues of paintings in oil.