Edgar Degas was one of the finest pastelists of all time and also one of the great champions of the medium. But Degas died in 1917 and, based on a cursory overview of art history styles and trends, seems to have taken the art of pastel with him to his grave. For most of the subsequent 20th century, brash, bold oil painters dominated the scene, making statements with their wet brushes and squeezed out tubes, applying paint in shiny, gooey strokes, smears, sometimes splatters. All very macho you know 😉 One wonders if any of them even owned a pastel set, let alone held one of those chalky, powdery pigment sticks in their hand.
So where did pastel go for so many decades? Sadly, it was demoted, almost into oblivion, branded with an unfair stereotype as a creative activity for hobbyist housewives and senior citizens in community center art classes. Despite its origins tracing all the way back to the 16th century, pastel simply fell off the radar, and was no longer considered a medium for “important” art (whatever that means).
But now, pastelists and pastel appreciators everywhere should take note. Last month on September 10th, Flora Giffuni, sole founder and president of the Pastel Society of America, died at the age of 89. I acknowledge her passing on this blog not just as pioneering figure in the art world, but for personal reasons as well.
I knew Flora Giffuni since I was a child. My mother knew her for over 40 years. Flora, or “Mrs. Giffuni” as I called her, used to live in the same Queens neighborhood I grew up in, and where my Mom still lives to this day. An accomplished pastelist, Flora began teaching small private art classes in her home studio, and my mother was one of her regular dedicated students. The sessions were wonderfully rewarding, educational and enjoyable for everyone who participated. Flora herself always recalled those days with great fondness, as she was extremely proud her early tight-knit group of students. My mother has often said that she felt she learned more under Flora’s tutelage than from all her fine arts classes at Hunter College in the 1950s.
In 1972, Flora founded the Pastel Society of America, the first and only such organization of its kind. With this creation, pastel work underwent a long-needed rebirth. A renaissance. One which inspired a whole new wave of serious pastel artists, among them my good friend Sam Goodsell.
A passionate advocate throughout her life, Flora Giffuni worked tirelessly to promote the pastel medium and was responsible for the creation of 30 regional pastel societies around the United States. Degas would have been proud.
In recent years I was privileged to pose for Flora Giffuni’s classes in her Saturday atelier held at the National Arts Club, which is home to the Pastel Society. It was funny to both me and Flora that she had known me for so long as “Elaine’s little girl”, and now I was a fully grown woman posing as her nude model! In her wheelchair, Flora sat in a prime location right in front of the model stand, sorting through her pastels, talking, cracking jokes, telling stories, offering instruction and tips, delighting in every minute of the art class dynamic. Old age, back surgery and arthritic fingers were no match for her indomitable spirit. She just kept on doing what she loved.
One of Flora’s personal favorites of all her works, this is Red Ribbon:
Next Monday night, a memorial celebration will be held in Flora Giffuni’s honor, from 4 – 6 in the Grand Gallery of the National Arts Club. That date, October 26th, would have been Flora’s 90th birthday. It is also, get this, my mother’s birthday 🙂 Many of us will be attending, and I’m sure it will be a terrific gathering.
With this tribute post, I express appreciation to Flora for reviving the beauty, tradition, and technique of pastel, for employing life models, and for mentoring and inspiring countless artists for over five decades. RIP “Mrs. Giffuni”.