Spring is in bloom in the arts world, too: so Ilaria Riccio realised as she walked through the Pastel Revealed exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.
Spring is starting to be making its way around us. More sunlight, more colours around the streets, and relatively warmer weather. But these are not the only examples of the spring atmosphere that is slowly turning Dublin into a vibrant, soft-tainted city: the arts are certainly contributing to this process, with nature and flower-themed exhibits. But if you are not into these stereotypical portrayals of spring, there is definitely something for you out there, too. Indeed, the National Gallery of Ireland is granting access to almost half of its collection of pastel paintings in the “Pastel Revealed” exhibition. With artworks spanning four centuries by artists from Ireland and beyond, the exhibit is a non-stereotypical spring-related ensemble of paintings that, with its soft yet charged colours, recalls an overall spring aesthetic.
Organised in chronological order, the exhibit displays the evolution of the pastel technique in all its complexity and high potential for expressiveness. And, contrary to common belief, landscapes are not the privileged subjects for pastels. Indeed, the exhibition features a majority of portraits, including the very first artwork to be acquired by the museum for developing the pastel collection. The piece, Portrait of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond by Edmund Ashfield, was bought in 1873 but dates back to the mid-1600s, signalling the long-standing tradition of this technique.
With artworks spanning four centuries by artists from Ireland and beyond, the exhibit is a non-stereotypical spring-related ensemble of paintings that, with its soft yet charged colours, recalls an overall spring aesthetic.
Another prominent portrait artist featured in the exhibit is Hugh Douglas Hamilton. An Irish painter, it appears he mostly dedicated himself to head and shoulder portraits of aristocratic figures. One exception is one of my favourite paintings in the exhibition. Reclining Woman with Child in an Interior, Naples depicts an intimate scene of a woman who was originally believed to be Emma Hamilton - wife of the British Ambassador to Naples in the late 1700s - with a child, with the room’s balcony framing Mount Vesuvius. As someone born and bred in Naples, seeing a glimpse of what makes the outline of the city recognisable evoked a sense of comfort in me, and the soft tints turned an otherwise menacing-looking volcano into a distinctive signifier of the city of Naples - and a warm, “welcome home” sign to me.
Whilst artists from several countries engaged with pastel, several of the most distinguished users of this technique were from France: Jean-François Millet, Eugène Lemercier, and Maurice Marinot all feature in the exhibit with their preferred subjects and colours. However, the artist who stands out the most is definitely Edgar Degas, with one painting from his renowned series portraying Ballet Dancers: I saw this painting from across the room and rushed to see it up close, mesmerised to have such an iconic piece of art right before my eyes.
Seeing a glimpse of what makes the outline of the city recognisable evoked a sense of comfort in me, and the soft tints turned an otherwise menacing-looking volcano into a distinctive signifier of the city of Naples.
Another standout feature of this exhibit is the presence of two female painters. Yes, it is a small number, but considering how few female painters are acknowledged publicly, I was pleasantly surprised to find them - but not surprised of their mastering of the pastel technique. Anna Nordgren, a Swedish painter active between the late 1800s and the very early 1900s, features with her portrait of Countess Markievicz, an outstanding figure due to her activist and political endeavours - and an apprentice under Nordgren. We definitely love revolutionary women uplifting each other.
Slightly more featured in the exhibit than Nordgren is Italian painter Rosalba Carriera. She made a name for herself during her tenure at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris in the early 1720s, where her skillful mastering of pastel contributed to the technique becoming a respected way of doing art. Carriera’s pastels feature particularly radiant colours, which heavily characterise her Four Seasons series: the painter personifies the seasons through mythology, and specific elements help distinguish each season - for instance, the personification of Spring holds white petunias, whilst Winter warms her hands with a small fire. Furthermore, considering how winter has been traditionally rendered through male figures, Carriera’s impact is notable in her decision to paint a woman instead.
The “Pastel Revealed” exhibition is a journey along centuries of art that saw different uses and subsequent evolution of the pastel technique. From landscapes to portraits, each painter’s distinctive mastering of the technique makes the exhibit a varied and surprising exploration of artistic practices and expressions. And if Degas’ presence is not enough to draw you towards the exhibit, Nordgren and Carriera’s works definitely deserve appreciation. And if what appeals to you is simply wanting your spring spirit to bloom - pun intended - that is fine too.