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Now That's An Artifact: See Mary Cassatt's Pastels At The National Gallery

These pastel boxes originally owned by Mary Cassatt were acquired recently by the National Gallery of Art. Click here for a closer look. (National Gallery of Art)

Imagine if you could see the pen Beethoven used to write his Symphony No. 5. Or the chisel Michelangelo used to sculpt his David. Art lovers find endless fascination in the materials of artists — a pen, a brush, even a rag can become sacred objects, humanizing a work of art.

And now, at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, visitors can see some of the materials that impressionist Mary Cassatt once used — three well-loved, large wooden boxes of pastels from distinguished Paris art supply stores. Each box is filled with stubby pieces of pastels, some worn down to half an inch, others almost untouched.

"I'm delighted," says curator Kim Jones. "It's the kind of thing that really entrances people."

One gallery visitor bends over to inspect the chalks — and gasps when she realizes what she's looking at: "It's just fascinating. It's a piece of history," she says.

To think that Cassatt held them, and used them — it offers a rare glimpse into the process behind the masterpieces.

Jones says the National Gallery will be doing examinations of the pastels in the near future — testing to see what they're made of, which pigments were used, how the soft pigment powder was stabilized, how the pastels were fixed to drawing paper so they wouldn't smudge (these days, some artists use hair spray as a fixative).

In her last decades, Cassatt was using pastels more than oil paints. Her luminous colors were vibrant — beautiful fuchsias and teals. In 1920 — six years before she died — Cassatt gave these boxes of chalk pastels to the 10-year-old granddaughter of her New York friend and patron Louisine Havemeyer. Years later, that granddaughter, Electra Webb Bostwick , admitted she didn't know just how special the gift was.

"Not realizing the value of the pastels I wasted lots of them on playing and swapping them with my friends," she recalled.

Now they belong to the National Gallery's collection of artists' materials — paints, brushes and other artifacts, useful to scholars and other artists who study them for inspiration and edification. They'll be on view until Oct. 5.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Behind every great work of art there once was an artist, an artist holding a paintbrush or working with a chisel or hammering away at a typewriter. For NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg, these can be sacred objects, for example, an impressionist artists' materials now at Washington's National Gallery of Art.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Years ago, a librarian at Princeton University let me hold the original manuscript of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." To me, it felt like the holy grail. In Washington, visitors are equally thrilled by some pieces of colored chalk in a big plexiglass case at the entrance to a popular exhibit of works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.

KIM JONES: I'm delighted.

STAMBERG: Curator Kim Jones.

JONES: Just standing here - the number of people who stop and look at them and they read the label like - Mary Cassatt's pastels? That's so cool. What are they made of? It's the kind of thing that really entrances people.

STAMBERG: Three well-loved, large wooden boxes from distinguished Paris art supply stores, each box filled with stubby little pieces of pastels. Some worn down to half an inch, other chalk sticks almost untouched. One gallery visitor bends over to inspect the chalks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's just fascinating. It's a piece of history.

STAMBERG: You went (imitating gasp).

WOMAN: I know, it's just - my daughter has pastels and to see this is incredible.

STAMBERG: To think that Mary Cassatt held them and used them.

JONES: And these are well used. The nice thing is that now that we own them, one of the things that we'll be doing at some point in the near future is doing some examinations.

STAMBERG: The National Gallery will test to see what they're made of, which pigments were used, how the soft pigment powder was stabilized, how the pastels were fixed to drawing paper so that they wouldn't smudge. These days, some artists use hair spray as a fixative. In her last decades, Mary Cassatt was using pastels more than oil paints. Her luminous colors were vibrant.

JONES: Beautiful fuchsias and teals.

STAMBERG: In 1920 - six years before she died - Cassatt gave these boxes of pastels to the 10-year-old granddaughter of her New York friend and patron Louisine Havemeyer. Years later, that granddaughter, Electra Webb Bostwick spoke about the gift and said she'd use the colors. Kim quotes Electra.

JONES: I played with them not realizing what I had. Now, these are not children's, these are not toys. This is a full-sized pastel sets.

STAMBERG: Now they belong to the National Gallery, which collects artists' materials - paints, brushes, various artifacts useful to scholars and other artists who study them for inspiration. Kim Jones says Cassatt pastels, by nature brittle, have gone on view only recently.

JONES: I've not even had a change to touch them yet.

STAMBERG: Well, me either. So come one, let's open the case.

Polite smile - shake of the head.

I had the feeling that you might refuse me and so I brought my own.

Mine are not chalky like Cassatt's. They are oil pastels - pliable, more like crayons. Kim picks up a red one and indulgently scribbles on some paper.

You know? That's not bad. This could be a future masterpiece.

JONES: It could be a future masterpiece. I probably won't quit my day job anytime soon however, just in case.

STAMBERG: Mary Cassatt's pastels are on view at the National Gallery of Art only until October 5. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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