Thursday, July 24, 2014

In Memory of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka

Requiescat in pace

My long-time fascination with the majesty and nobleness of gardens, that "unique aesthetic synthesis of our passions," led me to the writings of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, and extraordinary philosopher with a penchant for first-class thinking as well as a manifested ability to express those thoughts. 

Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was founder and president of The World Phenomenology Institute, an academic organization founded in 1976 to promote scholarship in the area of phenomenology, and editor (since its inception) of the book series Analecta Husserliana

Rather than elucidate on the life and work of Dr. Tymieniecka, I prefer, instead, to share a few of my favorite passages from the first book I purchased in her outstanding collection of writings, her four-volume Logos and Life being her magnum opus. 

Andrei Belichenko

"As our human cultures manifest, there is a particular significance in the cultivation of a garden that exceeds by far any practical life-sustaining benefit. The sensibilities, emotions active in the gardner's involvement with his or her piece of land run through the entire range of the human soul. Emerging from its subliminal, specifically human sphere, these sensibilities soar on the wings of Imaginatio Creatix above attachment to possessions, enterprises, ambitions, power ... and express the full gamut of aesthetic, moral, and intellectual enjoyment of our beingness, extending out toward the furthest frontiers of human longing." 

"A garden stirs one's entire beingness. Our whole vital and creative system, as it were, feeds on the garden and draws out from it the entire spectrum of rays of significance." 


"A garden serves as a mirror of our inner existence; a garden is seen as a miniature of the world; it functions as a symbolic expression of our highest longings for order in beauty. We see in a garden an "Eden," an ideal of harmony, beauty, sublimity, innocence, peace, and fulfillment, a prototype of "Paradise." 


"On the one hand, the experience of the gardner cultivating the life of plants from germination through unfolding and growth is already preceded by an aesthetic project and a vision of the garden's flourishing, and the harvest encompasses all the human passional strivings: vital, subliminal, communicative. This follows in the imaginative reworking and appropriation through experience of all the ontopoietic phases of life's unfolding. Yet in following their temporal lines, this aesthetic that oscillates between the never graspable promise of origins at one end and the fulgurating rays of fulfillments at the other." 


"Dwelling in that duration
we achieve an infinite repose." 

Andrei Belichenko

"The pulls and tensions of spontaneities, forces, dynamisms struggling onwards in the growth-and-decay progress of the living being that is human, on being worked upon in imaginative interpretation, are reappropriated in the human being's most intimate participation in nature-life and lose their present urgency, so that we may repose in nature, have confidence in its logoic rules, and hope for continuing fulfillment in the harvest to come." 

(Theme, A.-T. Tymieniecka, Analecta Husserliana LXXVIII, 1-4)

Andrei Belichenko


The writings of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka illustrate her taste and preference for beauty in natural settings, her eloquence of expression, and her innate sensitivity for deep reflection and the understandings that follow. Her scholarly work triumphantly surmounts what now passes for scholarly publication, laying bare, without disguise, the errors and weaknesses of hurried reflection. Tymieniecka is one of those paragons whom painters of model philosophical heroines have delighted to imagine themselves; one who from childhood gave manifest indications of excellence and greatness, and whose whole life was but a steady progressive development of its early promise. 

I hold the writings Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka in the highest favor and esteem and believe that I could not endure the rational scrutiny of life without the softness and grace of expression inherent in her writings. The purpose of this post is to express my deep appreciation for her life's work. 

Andrei Belichenko

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Étude to Fruit

Happy Fruit
hear the sound

We with our étude
doon, doon, doon, doon

Why such words?
wry smile found

Merry arrangement
jubilant, untroubled, theater in the round

A cacophony of mixed pomiculture
that doesn't distinguish the one

Without its integument
to loll around

There's a poem found in produce
a reward, an outcome

A fleshy legacy

In an earthy cathedral where offerings

Fruit and a Jug on a Table (1890-94)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

40 Pet Peeves

Just like everybody else, I get annoyed when my fortune cookie and horoscope give me completely opposite numbers; it makes winning the lottery all the more difficult. 

And just like everybody else, I have a few pet peeves. Here are a few random ones for you to read whilst I go pour myself another cup of coffee. 

Pet Peeves
  1. People who use the word "whilst"
  2. People who believe in astrology
  3. People who are addicted to coffee
  4. Sales clerks at the gas station who ask your birthdate when purchasing a lottery ticket
  5. Having to fill up my own gasoline tank
  6. Cars that stop running just because you accidentally put diesel fuel in the tank
  7. Being colorblind and not realizing that gasoline nozzles are color-coded
  8. Touching ATM buttons when I can see fingerprints from the person(s) who used it previously
  9. The fact that alcohol hand sanitizers burn your hands 
  10. People who tell me I should not use hand sanitizer to clean my hands
  11. Being born into an era prior to the invention of teleportation
  12. The idea that my body will be destroyed via teleportation and copied elsewhere
  13. Dating in America
  14. Bad hair days
  15. Looking like my passport photo
  16. Having to inform 4-5 people at a boutique that I'm just looking
  17. Spending ten minutes to find a sales clerk when I want to make a purchase (after having told them that I was just looking)
  18. Knowing that I had my keys like five seconds ago and now can't find them (seriously, I am still looking)
  19. Reaching my head under my desk to pick up my keys only to hit my head on the way back up
  20. Headaches
  21. Aspirin that gets soggy in your mouth when you try to swallow it
  22. Drinking orange juice after taking aspirin
  23. Brushing my teeth after drinking orange juice
  24. Eating anything after I have just brushed my teeth
  25. Having someone walk behind my car when I am trying to back out of a parking space
  26. Slowing down to let a pedestrian cross only to have some *moron behind me honk his horn
  27. Slicing my tongue when I lick an envelope
  28. The fact that I can never dislodge those last two ice cubes from the tray
  29. Having an ink pen leak out all over my clothes just because I washed it with my laundry
  30. Having to use Shazam because Radio DJs don't tell you the name of the song until twenty songs have passed (and you've already gotten out of the car)
  31. The fact that the file box screen goes blank (it flips to the 2nd page) when you add the 9th app to your iPhone file box, which means you always end up with 8 apps
  32. People who are obsessed with symmetry 
  33. Any sentence that has the word "patience" in it
  34. Waiting in line for anything
  35. Waterproof mascara ... it comes off if you cry, shower, or swim, but never with make-up remover
  36. Realizing that I left my grocery list on the kitchen counter 
  37. Taking a sick day and actually waking up sick
  38. Returning packages I ordered off of 
  39. Enlightenment: life is nicer when you don't realize what everybody's doing wrong
  40. People who claim to be "Enlightened" and think they know everything
  41. People who can't count

*moron: the technical term for the "Large Oof" laying down on his horn whilst I was waiting for a pedestrian to cross the street (term not to be confused with any of the charming cities in Buenos Aires, Cuba, Haiti, Mongolia, Venezuela or the lake on the border between France and Switzerland). 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Captain Literature

Jules Vernes had me at

Cinq semaines en ballon... (five weeks in a balloon). The remaining voyage evoked wild cheering resounding from all sides of my brain. Like a shadow I followed those fearless travelers and explorers whose energetic temperaments carried them across every quarter of the globe. Vernes' other stories tempered the regimen on which my youthful exuberance subsisted; supplying me with hurricanes, machines, and an explorer's voyage of discovery to Tabor Island (although, as a girl of ten, I could hardly imagine my parents allowing me to tag along).

"What is especially curious," Harding's words echoing in my mind, is how Vernes draws his readers into his stories. Is it the gulf between our daily lives and the lives of our imaginary world whereby a novel can drag us along on a bonadventure without protest? Why do Vernes' stories succeed while others fail? Failure is not admissible, the engineer might have replied. 

"Let us continue again," Harding would tell us. 
"Exactly!" Herbert would add. 

Just as a mystery existed for Pencroft, Herbert, and Neb, a mystery exists for many writers. Why is one book loved and favorited while so many others go unnoticed or unread? Could there be some entity hidden in the profoundest recesses of the pages? It is necessary at any cost to ascertain this if one wishes to envelop their own readers in a tale of intrigue. 

Like a vessel in the distance, this invisible being must be wonderfully narrow, well-masted, admirably built, and sail rapidly through the pages of our novel. It has to be something we cannot distinguish until at last we come face to face with it. 

But if this wretched presence tries to seize our story, we must defend it. For if we do not, it will invade our book, anchor there, and find accomplice with our words, an element eager to enter into communication with it. 

As the night falls and profound darkness envelops our subconscious, no light can pierce through the pages of our book. The essence of the entity we've been chasing fades away with the twilight. Not a page rustled in the book, not a ripple murmurs from its binding. Nothing can be seen of the entity; all her hinted existence is extinguished. It is as if she is still in sight of our story, but her whereabouts are undiscovered. 

"Well! who knows?" Pencroft reminds me. 
"Perhaps that cursed craft will stand off during the night, and we shall see nothing of her at daybreak." 

As if in reply to the sailor's observation, a turning of the page flashes a bright light in the darkness of our story, and a cannon-shot is heard. The entity in our story is still there. At the same time, readers can hear her rattling through the final chapters of the book. If we flip ahead, she disappears off beyond the horizon. 

This vessel, this invisible being that lurks through the pages of masterful novels, has anchored herself somewhere in our story, but we know not if or where she will be found. 

It is, I think, this invisible vessel that sails through the pages of the world's best-selling novels. Like Cyrus Harding and his companions, authors are ready to act, to bring her to shore, but, professional storytellers that they are, they remember to remain prudent. Perhaps they think that this vessel is concealed from their own readers. But if she is there, if she graces the pages of a novel, readers know it from the first page onward. 

But why is that flag still hoisted at the brig's peak? Why was that shot fired? Pure bravado? Doubtless; unless it was a sign of the act of taking possession. Irrespective, this author knows that this vessel is well armed, but my characters are in an impregnable position. The vessel cannot overtake the writer - hidden under reeds and parchment - and consequently it would be impossible for her to penetrate the story - or would it? 

There is indeed something there, amid the pages of the world's best novels. A presence lurking, preventing us from laying the book down until we read clear through to the last word. If she surfaces, the story ends, as does our fascination with it. If she escapes our grasp, the story continues, forever fixated in the realm of our imagination. 

As Ayrton makes preparations for his departure, so too do we make preparations for the possibility that that this vessel might someday return - in a sequel, maybe? Hitching a ride on Speedy, her return is forever possible.

As Harding might surmise,

the initial velocity [of this vessel] 
is in [direct] proportion to..." 

the quality of the writing.

Her presence depends on our employing the highest degree of resistance. We have, therefore, reason to believe that our invisible vessel will leave a wake through the pages of our book. 

Like Prince Dakkar, there is a handsome bounty payable for information on the whereabouts of our invisible entity. Every writer wants her for themselves. Every writer hopes she will journey through the pages of their stories, escaping all that pursue her. 

Quality writing never recedes; the law of necessity ever forces it onwards. Unable to find that invisible essence we court, overcome by disappointment when she fails to emerge, our hope falls prey to a profound disgust for writing until, when again, we pick up a masterful novel of unexpected brilliance. It is then she, this elusive entity; this moving, lighting, and heating agent that ignites our story with her presence and renders us devoted, as always, to her anonymous presence. 

For a long time I wondered just what it was that made one story great and another sub-par. Concluding that brilliance has something to do with this invisible vessel anchored off our starboard bow. Vernes' books follow her closely, but none possess her. She supplies us with the notion that all our wants might be granted, but there remains a fragment washed by the waves of literature, the tomb of which bears the name: Captain Literature. 

Cover of L'Algerie Magazine, June 15, 1884
The Text reads "M. Jules Verne: going to the best sources
for authentic information on the underwater world"

My Morning with Don Quixote

I don't know about my readers, but shortly after awakening in the morning brain kicks into full-gear. Ten to fifteen minutes later, Little Miss Fia and I head out on our morning walk.

Why am I writing about my morning routine, you ask? Because this is when my philosophical brain awakens, leading my thoughts down those seemingly endless trails of contemplative landscape that invariably lead me back to the reality of my own vision of the world. As with the tales of Don Quixote, I wonder if any of us should believe in the reality of our own vision. This is a perfectly valid question... for everything we do, in terms of the daily actions we take - including writing in this blog - is a direct reflection of that which we perceive to be "reality".

In Nabokov's 1983 book Lectures on Don Quixote, he wrote: "Both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty. From that viewpoint it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned. And its cruelty is artistic."

My favorite Quixote book 
because it is illustrated by Gustave Doré

There is an artistic vision at play in the way we see the world - whether one sees their world as bitter and barbarous or peaceful and fortunate. The illuminating part is that we perceive at all. The fact that we do perceive and that we are aware of our perceptions, including our many changes of perception, indicates that we are capable of altering those perceptions into that which pleases us most - irrespective of our circumstances.

I realize that this is not news, but do people really take this innate cognitive ability to heart? Meaning, how many people - besides philosophers or cognitive scientists - regularly experiment with their own perception? Is there any benefit to doing so? Furthermore, why did Cervantes subject Don Quixote to the physical abuse in Part I, and the psychic tortures of Part II, when, instead, he could have written him into a fantastical story, living luxury in a grand palatial edifice surrounded by centuries of masterpieces.

Nabokov said it was for aesthetic reasons: the cruelty is vitalized by Cervantes's characteristic artistry. Cervantes, if you consider him as being the disguised presence in the text, is the answer. He was the most battered of eminent writers. At the great naval battle of Lepanto, he was wounded, and so at twenty-four permanently lost the use of his left hand. In 1575, he was captured by Barbary pirates, and spent five years as a slave in Algiers. Ransomed in 1580, he served Spain as a spy in Portugal and Oran, and then returned to Madrid, where he attempted a career as a dramatist, almost invariably failing after writing at least twenty plays. Somewhat desperately, he became a tax collector, only to be indicted and imprisoned for supposed malfeasance in 1597. A fresh imprisonment came in 1605 where he began composing Don Quixote. Part I, written at incredible speed, was published that same year. Part II, spurred by a false continuation of Don Quixote by one Avellaneda, was published in 1615.

Fleeced of all royalties from Part I by the published, Cervantes would have died in poverty except for the belated patronage of a discerning nobleman in the last three years of his life. Clearly the physical and mental torments suffered by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza had been central to Cervantes's endless struggle. But is this the whole story? Is Don Quixote a reflection of Cervantes's life or is it a mirror held up to the reader? How can this bashed and mocked knight-errant be, as he is, a universal paradigm were it not the latter?

These considerations relate to the concept of perception. What we like or dislike in others, we like or dislike in ourselves. The struggles of others become our own when we consider them. As much as Don Quixote is about Cervantes's struggles, it is a mirror of our own. But does it have to be?

We all have the choice to view the world cynically, to view its inhabitants with suspicion, to approach the day with trepidation and caution. We also have the choice to view the world aesthetically, to see others for their inherent beauty, and to welcome each day as a unique moment in time, fully immersing ourselves in it.

There are those who fall and spend the rest of their lives telling others about that fall. While there are those who fall and, unless reminded, rarely, if ever, mention it again. That fact isn't that we fall, the fact isn't that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza suffered torments, bodily and social, but that they had an adventure filled with falls, challenges, triumphs ... and "moments".

That is why Don Quixote is one of the most beloved books of all time. It is not about the challenges he faced, it is about the moments he lived, the romance of chivalry, the delights he experienced and the self's freedom over obligations of any kind. It is equally about freeing ourselves from our vision of reality and embarking upon a quest for new perceptions.

As said Jean-Jacques Rousseau "man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains."

Cervantes, surrounded by jailers and fellow prisoners, escaped his prison and, consequently, the jail cell of his mind, and fled to La Mancha, where an old-fashioned gentleman, never without a lance upon a rack, who ate lentiles on Fridays, groaned on Saturday, consumed three-quarters of his revenue, wore fine cloth and velvet breeches, and who also had nothing to do (which was almost all the year round), passed his time in delight of knight-errantry.

Together with Sancho, Cervantes and Don Quixote freed themselves of their chains, both the physical ones and the perceived ones. It was Cervantes's choice to escape the torments of prison life, just as it is was Don Quixote's choice to escape the torments of boredom, just as it is our choice to escape that which unnerves or otherwise makes us unhappy. True, not everyone on the planet can escape their circumstances, but we can escape our perception of our circumstances.

Imagination is one of the marvels of the human mind. Sharing it can benefit us in many ways. It also benefits others. We connect through this sharing, whether we are sharing challenges or possibilities, or the places to which our imagination can lead. Imagination is as fluid as life itself.

It was with that thought that Little Miss Fia and I arrived back to our gate. It was now time to welcome in the morning, to treat ourselves to a little something-something, and task ourselves with making use of the day we have before us.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sophists Return

Blah, Blah, Blah (2012)
Mel Bochner

Plato and his teacher Socrates would have laughed at this art. It symbolizes the logon didonai or the human ability to "give reasons" to sway the doxa, what we call "public opinion" (which is the main target of rhetorical persuasion). 

Here's the rub. The Sophists of yesterday still dwell among us. Making their way around the world, around the internet, and into our homes and minds. Evoking pathos with every word they speak, every post they share, Sophists move their audience, which is, according to Plato, a type of "rhetorical pathology" (Phaedrus, 272) intended to cause mental confusion. 

Language Is Not Transparent
Mel Bochner

Sophist-like posts, tweets, articles, and videos flood the internet. Calculated to cause people to feel sympathy and sadness, this artistic representation of human expression triggers the emotional center of the brain, evicting the soundness of judgment with it. 

How is it that words can move us so? What faculty of human understanding is so powerful, yet so manipulatable, that an individual who has no true understanding of that which they say can still overwhelm us with words, causing us to abandon all sense of balance and tranquility in the process? Swept away in an emotional hijacking, the transformation from the rational to the irrational occurs in a split second, at the very sight or sound of the Sophist's persuasive sermon. 

News stories, headlines, social posts, and public videos share this sermon-like vernacular. Our society is accustomed to it. The lingo of the masses has long since been a dialect intended to move, persuade, or sway an individual toward a certain belief system - even if only temporarily, because in reality, it is only a temporary moment of irrational thinking that is needed to cause a revolution. Irrationality cannot be sustained on a long-term basis without the continual bombardment of highly charged words to supercharge human emotion. 

It doesn't get any better than this
Mel Bochner

It was for this reason that Plato rejected rhetoric as an appropriate form of providing education through reasoning speech. According to him, the ability to provide reasons cannot be of useful service in the formation and transformation of public opinion; such service reduces it to the mere conformation to majority opinion and renders it manipulative. 

Therefore the receiver of education should first and foremost gain insight into true reasons. Such knowledge, which makes it possible to take a stand against the whole world, is accessible only to philosophy. Philosophy is therefore episteme (true, right science), which sophistic rhetoric, always aiming at doxic understanding in its common aspect, has never been able to reach. 

Mel Bochner

Is Philosophy the true and right science? Certainly philosophical thinking can be described as a method by which thoughts and conclusions are analyzed against that which we know, that which we do not know, and that which we can only rationalize. But who has the time? 

Most individuals simply rely on their own filtering system, presuming that "right" vs "wrong" will be instantly illuminated inside their heads, giving them direct access to that which is true, correct, and obvious. "Duh," I used to say as a young teenager, which was met with an automatic rolling of the eyes by my parental units. 

Mel Bochner

It is fortune's luck that this rolling of the eyes occurs for us all. But are we justified in our eye movements? How do we know that what we think is right? For that matter, how do we know that what we think is what we think? Without examining our thoughts, without investigating all of our thoughts at a deeply profound level and then cross-referencing them in a systematic fashion (Descartian philosophizing), all of our thoughts and emotional reactions are subject to Sophist control. 

It is forever 1984 on the Internet. 

Even this blog has a 1984'ish aspect to it in the sense that this blog has a purpose: to entertain. 

However, this blog also stirs the power of individual thought in the process. Articles herein have one thing in common despite their diverse subject matter: A lack of rhetoric. 

Do I have To Draw You A Picture
Mel Bochner

The words and pictures herein combine together to offer insight into true reasons. Humorously, factually, quizzically, prolonged exposure to philosophical thinking will make it possible for an individual utilizing rational judgment to take a stand against the whole world and replace it with humor, insight, and questions that make others think. 

Still more: Philosophical thinking can re-educate and transform the easily-swayed mind into a community effort, a mindset capable of examining multiple scenarios without attachment to any specific agenda that has not undergone significant examination. And even after examination, a community mindset will continually revisit prior conclusions and test them against new hypotheses to ensure their continued validity or, if incongruities arise, expose their vulnerability to new scenarios. 

This type of thinking system is at the heart what Socrates instilled in his follower students. For Socrates, freeing himself and his fellow citizens to think for themselves meant that there was no room for (old) poetry, since 

we are ourselves authors of a tragedy... Thus you are poets, and we also are poets in the same style, rival artists and rival actors, and that the finest of all dramas, one, which indeed can be produced only by a code of true law (Laws, VII 817b).

Know What I Mean?
Mel Bochner

Despite all this examining, there was still room for the gods in Socrates' heart and mind, but Plato's texts offer us insight into why. On a very personal level, Socrates wanted to dwell among the gods. He wanted to feast with the Olympic winners for the rest of his days. 

On a spiritual level, the 4th century witnessed a permanent change in the attitudes of all Greeks. What resulted was a new attitude toward life and its expectations - a new world view. In the classical world of the polis, public and private lives were fused. Duty to the city-state was in itself virtuous. But in the Hellenistic world, public and private lives were made separate, and the individual's only duty was to himself. 

In art, sculpture, architecture, or philosophy, we see more attention paid to individualism and introspection. Plato's Ideas and Forms - universal principles of truth - were rejected in favor of individual traits. 

Socrates, the most noble Athenian, spent his entire life trying to fathom the mysteries of life: what is virtue? what is justice? what is beauty? what is the best form of government? what is the good life? 

In the Apology, Socrates, 70-plus years old, knew that he could go into exile, knew that he could flee his beloved Athens, but instead chose to remain and allow those in power to put him to death. Whether he would eternally dine with the gods he could not know for certain, but he could allow himself to imagine it freely because he had spent a lifetime examining it fully. 

In the end, what we ultimately choose to believe is our own. 

By example of Socrates we know it is possible to die free in the knowledge that we have examined life and ourselves to the best of our abilities. What comes afterwards we cannot know, but true examination prepares one for all possibilities. 

People who examine their thoughts are the ones who can enjoy rhetoric because they have the capacity to put it in its place, to understand its intended pathos, and to recognize its inherent effect upon the mind ... without buying into it. 

Mel Bochner

Quotations from Plato's work are taken from The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Pastel Portraits

Woman in green with white pearl necklace (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection

A few days ago I experimented with oil pastels for the first time. Never before had I considered working with pastels, but with them laid out on the table, I thought, "Why not?" and dove right in. 

I was amazed to discover how easy and versatile pastels flow out onto the paper. Not only do pastels blend easily, but oil pastels have that waxy feel of oil paints (except they do not dry out over time), which offers a smooth transition between layers. For artists who enjoy working with their hands (as opposed to a brush or instrument), pastels are a medium in which one's fingers can be utilized for blending. 

Self-Portrait (1789)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755-1842)
Pastel on paper, 19 5/8 x 15 3/4 in (5- x 40 cm)
Private Collection

A widespread interest in pastel portraits was sparked when the Venetian pastelist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), a guest of the influential collector and connoisseur Pierre Crozat, visited Paris. A surge of interest in Dutch and Flemish artworks was sought after by the aristocracy and wealthy financiers of 18th century Paris, who began decorating their opulent Parisian hôtels particuliers (urban private homes) with this popular medium. Pastels offered patrons a rare opportunity to commission their own portraits, which they used to fashionably decorate their luxurious homes. 

The ready availability of cast plate glass made it possible for these powdery compositions, which always require surface protection, to be executed on a larger scale, a feature that added to their growing prestige. Many viewers regard pastel portraits as aesthetically comparable to traditional oil paintings. Some viewers prefer the effect of "softness" that pastels offer, considering them more beautiful than their oil counterparts. 

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, as well as Rosalba Carriera, Maurice Quentin de la Tour (French, 1704-1788), Francis Cotes (English, 1726-1770) and John Russell (English, 1745-1806), were accepted into their respective country's academy or appointed as pastelists to royalty (as in the case of Le Brun), a testament to the high regard in which this medium was held.

Crayon-markers throughout Europe also contributed to the rise of the portrait market among both the elite and the less affluent. Portraits in these readymade crayons offered tangible advantages over oil - for both artist and sitter. Pastels required fewer sittings as there was no drying time (between layers); less paraphernalia was needed (mediums, brushes, etc.); the materials were easily portable and the costs were far less substantial. 

As more and more serious artists gravitated toward pastels, competition with oil painters in the academy and in the marketplace rose. The pervasive Enlightenment spirit that promoted the theoretical ideas of the century, as well as inventions and discoveries that contributed to the improvement of commerce and the artisanal trades, contributed to the popularity of pastels. In fact, French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) presented illustrated versions of these crayons (as well as paper and fixatives) in the Encyclopédie during this period. 

While pastel portraits became a popular art form during the Rococo and Enlightenment eras, they soon slipped from public notice due to their association with the ancien régime, and later on in modern times due to their fragility, which discourages exhibition and travel. 

Jacques Dumont le Romain (1701-1781) Playing the Guitar (ca. 1742)
Maurice Quentin de la Tour (French, 1704-1788)
Pastel on paper, 25 1/2 x 21 3/4 in. (64.8 x 55.2 cm)
Private Collection

The lifelike quality, or "bloom," pastels conferred upon its subject was praised in the eighteenth century. This distinctive appearance results from the physical characteristics of the medium and how it reflects light. As with all powders, pastel reflects light from the facets of its finely divided particles and the air spaces between them. This effect evokes a sense of white light. Given that there is only a small amount of binder utilized, the powder is opaque, and light does not penetrate through pastel; instead, light is diffused or scattered (reflected) from the surface. This is the phenomenon that accounts for pastel's velvety, matte quality. Also, the absence of varnish, which discolors over time, accounts for the characteristic brilliance and purity of tone. 

These characteristics were prized by eighteenth-century connoisseurs and consumers who decorated their homes in a bright contemporary interior décor, as evidence by mirrors, ormolu mounts and ornaments, and gilt frames popular at the time. 

A Pair of Louis XVI Ormolu and Porphyry Busts of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI 
(Late 18th Century)

Because the surface of a pastel can be easily rubbed and damaged, protective substances were devised in the eighteenth century, some even claiming to offer a means of enabling these works to be cleaned or varnished. There was, as there is today, great debate as to their efficacy. Many artists complain that applying a resin to the surface of a pastel darkens the colors and causes them to yellow. In absence of a fixative, artists secure the powder to the support, using roughened paper and carefully layering the pastels as a defense against damage or ruin. 

Madame Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (ca. 1750)
Jean Marc Nattier (French, 1685-1766)
Pastel on paper, two sheets joined, laid down on canvas, 31 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (80.6 x 64.1 cm.)
Private Collection

After spending about four hours working on this oil pastel portrait of my son (Contemplative Boy), I began weighing my options. On one hand, I would like to apply a fixative to protect the portrait from damage; on the other hand, I do not wish to risk damaging the artwork. 

While I work out the details, here are some general recommendations with respect to working with pastels: 

  1. Leave a half-inch to 1-inch border on your pastel artwork. This leaves room for the artwork to be matted properly, it also allows the edges of the paper to be taped to a mount board without getting tape on the artwork. 
  2. When storing the pastel painting, use an acid-free artist tape to carefully tape the corners of the pastel painting to the center of a sheet of acid-free foam board (cut to size). Next, lay a sheet of glassine over the artwork. An acid-free artist tape can be used to secure the glassine to the foam board. 
  3. When shipping pastel portraits, use glassine (archival, museum-quality barrier paper) to protect the surface of your art; gassine does not attract loose pastel particles. 
  4. If shipping or storing pastels, place a second sheet of acid-free foam board on top of the pastel artwork. The artwork should resemble a "foam sandwich"(Note that recommended materials are acid-free.).

Contemplative Boy (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection

While I have just recently begun painting portraits in oil, I am familiar with oil painting (abstract works). Compared to oil painting, pastels require far less time and fewer tools. While most pastels are executed on paper, Jean Étinne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-1789) used vellum for portraits of royal sitters. Vellum is relatively strong and coarse and thus well suited to withstand rubbing with pumice, a technique that artists used to produce a weak bond, or tooth, to hold the pastel portrait to the support. Today, papers with this "tooth" surface are readily available.

The pastels I created were blended with my fingers, though many pastelists use stumps - or tight spirals of paper or leather - to spread the pastel powder. Historically, portraits were executed with dry pastel, with the artist blending (stumping or "sweetening") the color into a smooth continuous mass without evidence of individual strokes. Sometimes a network of discrete strokes can be utilized which the eye optically blends.

While I have not yet experimented with blending with turpentine (applied with a brush), many artists recommend this technique for blending as opposed to using your fingertips, which can go almost instantly numb from utilizing them as a tool.

Girl with the sparkly eyes (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection

The versatility of pastels makes them an attractive medium to consider. Not only do they offer a velvety effect, but they can be mixed with other mediums, such as oils or watercolors. In Rosalba Carriera's Young Woman with a Pearl Earring, the pastel tip was wetted and then applied thickly to create an impasted effect comparable to oil, as seen in the lace details of John Russell's Portrait of Mrs. Robert Shurlock and Her Daughter Ann.

Left: Young Woman with Pearl Earrings (ca. 1720)
Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1673-1757)
Pastel on paper, 12 5/8 x 10 5/8 (32 x 27 cm)
Private Collection

Right: Mrs. Robert Shurlock and Her Daughter Ann (1801)
John Russell (English, 1745-1806)
Pastel on paper, laid down on canvas; 23 7/8 x 17 3/4 in. (60.6 x 45.1 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While I have not yet tried this technique, in the portrait of Lady Rushout with Her Three Elder Children, Daniel Gardner utilized a mixed-media technique: using pastel for the flesh tones and watercolor and broad thick strokes of gouache for the background and clothing. The overall effect is breathtaking. 

Lady Rushout with her Three Elder Children, Anne, Harriet, and John (ca. 1773-1775)
Daniel Gardner (English, 1750-1805)
Pastel and gouache on paper, laid down on canvas; 26 x 33 in. (66 x 83.8 cm)
Private Collection

All pastels must be protected from exposure to high levels of light or prolonged periods of illumination. Unlike oils, pastels' vulnerability to fading is increased because they are not protected by a varnish, nor are the powdery components surrounded by a resin. As with many artworks, pastels are at the greatest risk of color alteration from exposure to light. For this reason museums generally limit the display of pastels to no more than three months per year at five foot-candles. 

Girl with innocent face (2014)
Soph Laugh
Oil pastel on paper
Private Collection

In preparing my own pastels for display, I know to keep the following in mind: 

  • Pastels should always be framed and glazed (to best preserve them). 
  • Most acrylic sheeting is not satisfactory to glaze pastels because its static charge will attract pastel particles, a problem that is exacerbated when the plastic is rubbed. 
  • To protect my fragile artworks, shatterproof glass with an Ultraviolet (UV) barrier is my best choice. 
  • Pastels are occasionally glazed with AR acrylic sheeting, but conservation experts are uncertain of this material's long-range properties (such as deleterious off-gassing, which is common to many plastics as they age and deteriorate). Still, artists are mavericks in the sense that they are constantly experimenting with new materials and mediums. Thus, if you feel comfortable utilizing this sheeting, go right ahead. I wouldn't recommend utilizing it to preserve an eighteenth-century pastel portrait, but that's me. 
  • Original eighteenth-century glass does not have a UV barrier, they are protected from fading and color alteration by maintaining low light levels, covering the frame or closing curtains when not being viewed. 
  • Also, nearby windows can be coated with a UV film.  
  • To prevent dust from entering into the frame, a seal made of strips of paper can be applied to the back of a framed pastel. 

Of course, pastels are susceptible to biodeterioration such as mold because of the organic binders in the crayons, the adhesives used in the mounting structure, and their paper supports. Thus, 

  • Keep the room in a range of 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 48 to 52 percent relative humidity. High humidity can provoke staining; low levels can lead to desiccation of the support. 

One of the greatest hazards in transporting pastels is vibration. 
  • This can be reduced by cushioning crates with ethafoam, or, if the artwork is traveling a short distance, wrapping the composition in bubble wrap with the bubbles facing outward. 

Gustavus Hamilton (1710-1746), 2nd Viscount Boyne, in Masquerade Costume (ca. 1730-1)
Rosalba Carriera (Italian, 1673-1757)
Pastel on blue paper, laid down on canvas; 22 1/4 x 16 7/8 in. (56.5 x 42..9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Understanding the intricate fragility of pastels enhances our appreciation for the distinctive brilliance and richness of color of the medium. This knowledge also enables those of us new to the medium of pastels the opportunity to preserve our artworks by taking care to initially prepare, store, transport, and present them in a way that they are protected for the viewing enjoyment of future audiences.