Centuries of Creating a Rainbow in Pastels


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Jun 11, 2023

Centuries of Creating a Rainbow in Pastels

The French business La Maison du Pastel, founded in the 1720s, calls itself the oldest maker of pastels in the world. Margaret Zayer, a co-owner of La Maison du Pastel, at work last month in the

The French business La Maison du Pastel, founded in the 1720s, calls itself the oldest maker of pastels in the world.

Margaret Zayer, a co-owner of La Maison du Pastel, at work last month in the company’s atelier outside Paris.Credit...Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

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By Felicia Craddock

On an overcast afternoon in early October in the French countryside, Margaret Zayer, one half of the pastel-making company La Maison du Pastel, slid open one of the 19th-century drawers lining three sides of a small rectangular room in the business’s atelier. Inside, nine rows of vividly colored pastels gleamed in the overhead lights.

“We call this Jewels,” Ms. Zayer, 33, said of the collection. The hand-rolled cylindrical sticks, each around 7.5 centimeters long and 1 centimeter wide (3 inches by 4/10ths of an inch wide), were arranged, rainbow-like, from ruby through rose quartz.

Picking up the ruby — a color formulated for an artist who wanted “something that looks like Dorothy’s ruby slippers,” Ms. Zayer said — she drew a line on her forearm to display its iridescent pigments. The iridescents, introduced in 2014, added a contemporary twist to the 300-year-old house’s range, which now totals 1,814 pastels.

Pastels are sticks of powdered pigment held together with a binder, often made of gum. Used by artists since the Renaissance, pastels were popularized in the 18th century, but they have slipped in and out of fashion ever since. Compared with oil paint, a medium favored by collectors, pastel and watercolor are often considered “secondary techniques” on paper, Ms. Zayer said.

A co-owner of the company, Isabelle Roché, 52, agreed. Artists “sell more oil paintings,” she said, in part because they can be rolled up and shipped, and are easy to maintain. A pastel, in contrast, must be framed and kept behind glass to protect the delicate material.

“But there’s a vibrancy to the work that, to me, is incomparable,” she said. “The pigments remain what you see. It’s not covered in oil or acrylic.”

Founded in the 1720s, the company is described on its website as the oldest pastel maker in the world. It has passed through numerous hands over the years and was taken over by Ms. Roché in 2000.

Together, the two women produce the maison’s pastels entirely by hand in an old stone farm building at the center of a village about 40 miles southwest of Paris. (Ms. Roche does not want to disclose the precise location.)

And at the heart of all their recipes is the binder devised by one of her distant ancestors: Henri Roché, a chemist and pharmacist who bought the business in 1879. He worked with the artists of his day, including Degas, Whistler and Sisley, she said, to create the broad palette of vivid pastels that would not fade in sunlight. (A set of Roché pastels owned by Degas is part of the collection at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Ms. Roché noted.)

“Our fate is intertwined, in a sense,” Ms. Zayer said of the house’s relationship with artists. “They allow us to make something better by showing us the way sometimes, and we allow them to make the work.”

Among the house’s prominent customers was the French artist Sam Szafran, whose drawer of extra-large Cobalt Ultramarine Blue pastels — used to dramatic effect in a number of his works on view until Jan. 16 at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris — has remained at the atelier, untouched, since his death in 2019.

When Ms. Roché left her job as a petroleum industry engineer to buy the foundering business from two distant, octogenarian cousins, who had operated it since 1947, she found “there was barely anything left in the drawers.”

Single-handed, she began rebuilding the company’s collection of pastels but then, in 2010, Ms. Zayer, an art student at Bennington College in Vermont, arrived as a summer intern. Today she is in charge of color formulation for all the business’s hues.

“Their closest competition has 575,” said Mike Lesczinski, owner of Rochester Art Supply in Rochester, N.Y., one of the company’s two stockists. “It’s the greatest array of colors you’ll ever find.”

The maison’s pastels begin with one pure color — a pastel that is as much as 90 percent pigment — and then eight variations are made, each one a progressively lighter shade. Creating the recipe for that single pure-color pastel “can take a few hours to several years,” Ms. Roché said, while creating the full range of nine gradations, containing around 80 sticks of each shade, typically takes about a week.

The pigments, which are bought from various suppliers, and the binder, which the women mix themselves and whose ingredients remain a house secret, are weighed, blended with a spatula in a plastic tub, and then wet with water before being spooned into the funnel of a grumbling 1940s-era grinder.

Emerging fully combined and finer in texture, the pure color mixture is then divided into nine aluminum bowls. To eight of the bowls, a white (occasionally black or another color) paste, previously made in an identical fashion, is added by eye to create a series of progressively paler hues.

The nine blobs then are laid on terra cotta roof tiles — the contrast among the colors of the blobs is an additional way to judge the color, Ms. Zayer said. Then the blobs are wrapped in dish towels and the resulting parcels squeezed in a rusty 18th-century press, to eliminate excess water, and beaten with a wooden mallet.

Once unwrapped, the pastes are kneaded to the desired consistency and divided into small balls and weighed on an antique balance (the weight varies according to color). Then each one is rolled by hand into a gleaming, cylindrical baton, cut to size using a knife with a blade in the shape of a half moon and stamped with “ROC” for Roché Pastels.

Finally, laid in rows on a wooden plank, the pastels are left on a tall iron rack to dry for several weeks.

Single pastels cost 16 or 24 euros ($16 and $24). They are sold through the company’s online store and at its small boutique in Paris on the Rue Rambuteau in the Third Arrondissement, and by the business’s two stockists: Rochester Art Supply and the Magasin Sennelier, a shop in Paris on the Quai Voltaire in the Seventh Arrondissement.

The maison’s boutique, which is open only from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays, is a 28-square-meter (slightly more than 300-square-foot) former garage at the back of a paved courtyard. The spot is just a stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou, where a complete collection of Roché pastels from the 1980s is part of the permanent collection.

At the boutique the day after the visit to the atelier, Jean-Luc Buquet, an artist and illustrator who has been a customer since the late 1980s, sat at its long, bar-like counter. He had been introduced to the shop by an artist friend who was in awe of its volume of blue and green pastels, he recalled, though his friend never bought one. “I think it was too expensive,” Mr. Buquet said, although he added that each one is so dense that only a little is needed. “It’s very efficient.”

Before him stretched a wall of shelves stacked to the ceiling with old wooden trays labeled with names like “Setting Sun,” “Dragon’s Blood” and “South Green Sea.”

“They’re incomparable,” said Mr. Buquet of the pastels that lay arrayed on cotton wool. “In terms of luminosity, of quality, of resistance to light, of ductility.”

And the colors?

Mr. Buquet smiled. “Magnificent,” he said.

An earlier version of this article and an earlier version of an accompanying picture caption misstated the role of Isabelle Roché at La Maison du Pastel. She is a co-owner, with Margaret Zayer; she is not the sole owner. The article also included an incorrect reference to one of the company’s stockists. It is Rochester Art Supply, as noted earlier in the article; it is not Rochester Fine Arts.

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