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Mark Twain, Cry Me a River Series

by Ellen Wagener

Published onSep 21, 2020
Mark Twain, Cry Me a River Series

From the Series Mark Twain, Cry Me a River, 2015
Ellen Wagener (American, b. 1964)
Pastel on paper
Purchase with funds from Dennis and Betty Keeney. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2015.93

From the Series Mark Twain, Cry Me a River, 2015
Ellen Wagener (American, b. 1964)
Pastel on paper
Purchase with funds from Dennis and Betty Keeney. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2015.94

Pastel is a difficult medium to master, the end results delicate and hard to preserve if not treated with utmost care.  Used as a sketching medium during the Renaissance, pastel came into its own in the early eighteenth century in Europe, due in large part to the expertise of a woman artist, Rosalba Carriera.  A Venetian, Carriera pioneered the binding of chalks into sticks, increasing their portability and usability.  She traveled throughout Europe creating miniature paintings and pastels for nobility and royalty.  Pastels held wide appeal for her patrons due to their saturated palettes and luscious, matte surfaces.  At the same time, through the influence of Carriera and the women she taught, mentored, and inspired, pastel came to be seen as a particularly feminine medium.  It has thus long occupied a sometimes-contradictory position, recognized as technically demanding but, by its association with women practitioners, seen as a medium for amateurs and lightweights, appropriate only for pretty portraits and flower paintings.

Ellen Wagener has chosen pastel as her primary medium, using it to create paintings of nature and landscape that draw on American landscape traditions like those of the Hudson River School and Luminism.  Like Carriera’s, Wagener’s paintings have lush, matte surfaces, absorbing light into their velvety folds.  But Wagener paints an American landscape that is often anything but pretty, using pastel to deny pastel’s prior reputation, producing images of a Midwestern landscape filled with rough weather, raging cyclones, and descending twilight.  Even in quieter paintings such as these, Wagener evokes America’s brash past, the nighttime calm of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River just a temporary respite from the daytime tears and sweat of Western expansionism.  Demonstrating Wagener’s command of her chosen medium, her paintings implicitly refute any associations of “delicacy” that have come to be associated with pastel.  There is really no better medium, these paintings assert, for capturing the landscape of the Midwest in all its bewitching complexity.

-Dr. Emily Morgan

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