Hard to believe Margaret is not a direct descendant of one of Renoir’s favourite model… perhaps that rather cocky girl tying the ribbon of her hat? Or that one leaning her whole body to better hear her lover’s words in her ear… Although today positively more in the vein of La Femme à la collerette rouge with her dashing scarf around her neck. And, maybe yet, Renoir’s friend Degas was the one who whispered in Margaret’s dreams the name of his favorite pastel brand so that she might find her way back here in this very different new life but with the same adorable round face, shy eyes and winning laugh. Maybe. One can muse…
Hard to believe Isabelle has not washed her face and hands with simple soap, dressed herself in sensible cottons and wools, white and navy as should be, and left her country convent that morning to go and worship her very personal God in this sin city of Paris with as much dedication as any novice should. One feels the presence of such pure passion in her whole being, it’s vibrancy verges on the mystical. Maybe Isabelle has had to pray so much, trust so much her intuition and her vision, believe in the salvation not of her soul but of her enterprise so hard, that a true aura surrounds her now. Whatever the reason, it’s palpable and beautiful.
As complementary as opposite colours on the wheel, one meeting the other was however as random and glorious as life can be. Margaret was an art student in New York who read an article by pastel artist Barry Katz and decided to visit Isabelle’s little store. She fell in love with Isabelle’s pastels, Isabelle’s shop and Isabelle full stop. Despite relentlessly tracking the God of colour and chasing its material form in the shape of a little stick, a pastello, for the last ten years, Isabelle was ready to share her knowledge and some of her load when Margaret proposed. The rest is not history yet but, one day soon I bet, will be.
We talked for hours and a transcript of my interview would be too long for here but fun because we shared many stories and anecdotes. Of difficult clients and of difficult pigments. Of beautiful artworks and nearly more beautiful colours. Of the blurred line between a pastel painting and a pastel drawing. Of believing in work well done and the high cost of this these days. Virtually indecent. Virtually prohibitive and indeed virtually prohibited by our society, interested –even in our creative world– mainly in profit, bottom lines and in shaming those skilled, often proud, workers who enjoy making well beautiful materials and do not want the highly respected name and reputation of their company used to trade lesser quality goods.
Yes their pastels are expensive but after hearing some of their stories, I begin to hope these girls are making a little something for themselves, enough to get by at least because they sure do the hard work. In summer, the little workshop is pleasant enough but in winter it is so cold, they sometimes need to take the last bit of the work, the rolling of the pastels, back to the warmer house. Then, when it rains, the courtyard is full of puddles and one must not slip when bringing bowls of water to the atelier which has no tap, or slabs of wobbly pastel paste back to the press. And if the whole thing begins to remind you of a good old Dickens or Balzac for example, just remember too that these working conditions were normal then, it just so happens Isabelle has inherited them as is… (along with the secret binding recipe for the Roché pastels) and has chosen to buy another few kilos of that rare pigment rather than invest in running water!
That day, in which I meet them both, I will not visit the atelier which is a good hour away from Paris but we will laugh and share in the wonderful shop which hasn’t changed in the last three centuries the brand has existed it seems… but of course the history of the Maison du Pastel is not as straightforward as that. Isabelle, helped by a friend, has tried to trace back the meanders of weddings and successions that link her to the first owners, and maybe even some before these. The date of 1720 is given. It could be older, in fact the oldest colour manufacturer still in existence today. It began in Versailles at the time of the great portraitists, however the Maison really took off when Henri Roché bought it in 1860 with every intention of turning it into a professional endeavor of high standards, aided in his research of “the best pastel” by the artists of the time, Degas, Whistler, Sisley, and on. His son, Henri Roché Jr, pursued the same aim with passion and brought it to its apogee of 1650 hues before the Second World War. His widow, then his daughters, the three old ‘cousines’ somehow held the fort their father had build and passed the relay to Isabelle.
It is now in good hands. Witnessing the duo act of Isabelle who at first did it all but now is more on the admin side, and Margaret who brought her artist’s eye, quickly caught the virus that comes with looking at the pure colour of pigments, jumped in, mastered the old recipes and is now successfully formulating new ones (you simply need to touch one of their slippery, smooth and sleek metallic new hues to get my point) to know the spirit of the venerable Maison is not ready to die. Or even diminish one bit.
Pastels are the closest thing to holding a stick of pure pigment in your hand –making a mark is curiously moving and intense, even in the ‘pastel’ colours. The pigment needs to be wetted then bound of course but save for an addition of white chalk and arabic gum (plus I venture in the case of the Roché pastels some fine pumice to give them that little extra grit and adherence to the support), pastels are the least adulterated colour tool. With some of their newest pigments Margaret confides they are really pushing the limits of the materials… but she loves it. Furthermore, if it’s not in stock and an artist expresses the need in the shop on Thursday, chances are she will be having a go at it in the atelier on Friday. That’s the beauty of it just being the two of them with virtually no distributor (they have one in the US and one in Japan) or commercial team to convince. True craftswomen dialoguing with the users just like in the good old times. Yes budget and caution makes it difficult for them to buy bulk as another manufacturer would but they make sure their suppliers are the best pigment producers and, despite the small quantities, these large companies are happy to serve and support their artistic concerns…. might even be a bit proud to boot!
Pastel, unlike paint, is not really mixed although colours can be blended and layered of course. Still, pastels come –and by a long stretch– in the most extensive arrays of hues. When I opened my art store I could not believe anyone would ever need or want the 525 shades in the Sennelier range and for a long time thought that was the largest one… but Henri Roché was on his way to 2000 shades by the time he died! Today the Maison du Pastel offers 1201 nuances (with more in the pipeline) and when you remember that many painters work with a palette of maybe only four to five colours, usually with the addition of white, it really proves the extent of the divide between these two techniques! Pastelists’ studios with their trays filled of unashamedly minute variations in hues are a dream for the visitor, as exciting as a shop really… More so perhaps because while some are long and almost new, most are worn or even reduced to the smallest of stubs, and it feels like witnessing the remains of past artworks and getting a whiff of potential ones all at once!
The same excitement verging on giddiness overtakes me that morning as Isabelle and Margaret kindly pull out one tray after another. Scales of the same pigment mixed with either white or black (nine precise tinting or shading steps between the full chroma of the pigment and the lightest or darkest tone) or ‘combination hues’. These might have yellow and blue as starting points with a crescendo, decrescendo on both sides to the middle green. Each tray is labelled by its exquisite name (forget the unpronounceable Quinacridones and Pyrolles) and, when stacked, they read like a crazy inventory of birds, apples, flowers, lemons, olives, grasses, mosses and trees, earths, countries and places, precious stones, metals and minerals…. Of course you want them all!
At this stage I presume it goes without saying that their pastels are hand made. Still there’s hand made and then… there’s hand made! Apart from a ‘recent’ 1940’s grinder which makes pigment grinding slightly less grueling, every step of the labour intensive process is done by either Isabelle or Margaret, the first two colourwomen I have ever met and I doubt they are dreaming of a body-building class at the end of the day! First, pigments have to be precisely weighed, then in and out of the grinder they go. Dampening then mixing them thoroughly –at this stage most often with another colour– and the minimum binder to bring out the full intensity of each formulation is in itself a labour of love. Double checking the colour of the batch for consistency must be the most relaxing part of the afternoon. The paste is then placed onto tiles for a short drying time but, in due course, the tiles cross the courtyard and into the press the goo goes, folded into linen, squeezed between two planks to extract the right amount of moisture, then hammered a few times for good measure, and presumably to make the mass more malleable. Back in the atelier, little balls of paste are then extracted, weighed and hand rolled into the long and rather thin stick which is their trademark. The row of pastellos will now slowly air dry on a wooden plank but not before they are neatly trimmed at each end and marked individually with the house’s ROC stamp… classy!
Et voilà! Now you can exclaim, as English artist Paul Maze who had just been introduced to them by Vuillard en 1932 : “I have been brought here by God to meet God!”
To the skeptics (or those who maybe are a bit concerned they might fall in love forever) they say: “Try it!” and to those already divinely inspired by all of the above, you know what to do. When next in Paris make your way –on a Thursday afternoon only mind you!– to this delicious place to sample and choose, you will not regret it…
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Sabine, you surpass yourself each time!