Flora Giffuni

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 ūüėČ 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:

giffuni-redribbon

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 ūüôā 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”.

12 thoughts on “Flora Giffuni

  1. Interesting post, Claudia! Quite an honor to pose for such a remarkable woman…

  2. swatch says:

    what a beautiful picture and poignant story – Thanks Claudia

  3. Lori Gordon says:

    Great post, Claudia! I love pastels. The entire collection that Gauguin exhibited at Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle is on exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and I attended yesterday (wow – loved the recurring themes in his works — the tempestuous green water, the woman with red hair in the waves, the Brittony hats). Anyway, the exhibit had kids activities (I have a 2.5 and 4 y.o.), and one of them was “Pastel LIke Gauguin” — try to simulate pastels he did while he was in Tahiti. The exhibit reinvigorated my appreciation of pastels! Now I need to go back and appreciate them more without 2 kiddos hanging all over me!

    • artmodel says:

      Lori,

      Flora Giffuni would be delighted by your comments. That exhibit sounds amazing. I love Gauguin, especially his use of color. I can only imagine how brilliant his pastels of Tahiti must be. He was so inspired by the place.

      it’s wonderful that your appreciation of pastels has been renewed. And people don’t always realize what a difficult medium it is. Takes a lot of technique.

      Thanks so much for your comments and sharing your enthusiasm for the Gauguin show. Great to hear from you!

      Claudia

  4. Jennifer says:

    Most sorry to hear about the passing of your friend. I sometimes read ‘International Artist’ and it often features the Pastel Society of America, so interesting to know who was behind its founding. Hope the memorial service went well.

  5. Tracy Baronfeld Hoffman says:

    Beautiful article!! I also took classes in Mrs. Giffuni’s home studio. Your Mom might enjoy my post “Inspiring Teacher” in the February 2010 issue of The Pastel Journal.
    “RIP” Mrs. Giffuni.

    • artmodel says:

      Tracy,

      Thank you so much! I’m really glad you posted a comment. Both Mom and I will be sure to read your piece in Pastel Journal.

      Flora was a great teacher, amazing artist, and unique lady. She deserves all the remembrances.

      Thanks again!

      Claudia

  6. Janice B. Lingad-Thabet says:

    It was a privilege painting alongside Ms. Flora Giffuni at the Pastel Society of America’s atelier named after her.Until her last years, she would paint every Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the open sessions in the atelier located at the National Arts Club. After one of the sessions, I walked to the elevator with her and her aid and asked if there was anything in her apartment that she could kindly show. In a soft, slow husky voice and matter-of-fact tone, Ms. Giffuni said: “Darling, I don’t have anything upstairs,. I sold every piece of work I ever painted.”

    On an interview, I asked her what she envisioned for the future of the Pastel Society of America. Flora Giffuni said that she would like to see , “That the PSA will continue the scholarships granted to underprivileged youth.”

    She asked me to sit as a model also, afterwards, she signed the piece, showed it to me and said, “This is my gift to you.”

    Ms. Giffuni never missed the week-end drawing sessions unless she was in California with her daughters. -Janice Barbasa-Lingad Thabet (All rights reserved. June 2010).

  7. Ahh…tears in my eyes…
    I also drew next to my friend Sig.ra Giffuni and posed for her.
    One of the truly talented and remarkable women I ever had a priviledge to know.
    Such an honour to have been her student and also her friend.
    Do not go gentle into that good night Flora…

    • artmodel says:

      Marina,

      Flora made an indelible impression on everyone who knew her, particularly those who studied under her. And how wonderful that you posed for her as well!

      Thank you for sharing your memories!

      Claudia

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