ON THE TRAIL OF THE WORLD'S BEST PASTELS
a recent visit to Paris, I devoted a good deal of my time
to tracking down what are reputed to be the world's best
Every pastel artist has a favorite brand, and it would be
difficult to find even a dozen who all agreed which one
is the best. But I doubt anyone could dispute that the hand-made
pastels of Henri Roché are one of the best kept secrets
in the world of art supplies.
first heard about Henri Roché pastels several years
ago from the painter, Wolf Kahn. He spoke about the almost
ridiculous difficulty of obtaining them. They were, he said,
made according to an ancient recipe by an elderly Parisian
lady who, along with her two elderly sisters, maintained
the last vestiges of a family business that had catered
to many of the great artists of the last couple of centuries.
If you wanted to buy some, he continued, it was necessary
to appear at her doorstep at a particular time on Thursday
afternoons and hope that, if she were feeling well enough,
you would be admitted to the sanctum sanctorum, the Lourdes
of the serious pastelist. I thought he was exaggerating.
search for them during a short stay Paris the previous year
had met with no success. But I wasn't about to give up.
This time I began making inquiries almost as soon as I had
checked into my hotel and unpacked.
again, no one in all of Paris seemed to have heard of the
place. A few days later I had a brainstorm. Surely, I thought,
if anyone in the world knew where to find Roché pastels,
it would have to be at the Senellier shop on the Quai Voltaire,
just across the Seine from the Louvre. I knew from past
experience that they didn't carry the brand, but perhaps
someone there would be willing to divulge the information
The salesmen at Senellier are all very professional. They
wear white smocks and take their jobs quite seriously. But
they don't speak much English. So in broken French, I did
my best to explain that I had, "un question un peu
extrordinaire." This raised a few Gallic eyebrows,
but all I was able to ascertain was that none of them had
ever heard of Henri Roché.
Discouraged, I was about to give up when the owner, Dominique
Senellier, walked through the front door. I introduced myself
and told him how much I liked his excellent pastels, which
I have been using for several years. But I was curious,
I said, after buttering him up as much as I thought decent,
about the pastels made by the Roché family. Had he
ever heard of them, I asked?
"Well, yes," he said hesitantly, in clear but
heavily accented English, sounding not altogether unlike
Maurice Chevalier. "I know of them, but they are very
difficult to obtain. Practically impossible. First of all,
they don't make it easy, you know. Mme. Roché died
last year and I don't know for sure if they are continuing
the business. The shop is almost never open. And, monsieur,"
he continued, lowering his voice, "they are trop chèr,
I told him I knew all that, but was still curious. After
a pause, he promised to make some inquiries. He handed me
a business card bearing his private number, and instructed
me to phone him at 4:00 PM. When I called at the appointed
hour, he answered the phone himself. He was kind enough
to furnish me with an address, and instructed me to go there
on Thursday afternoon between 2:30 and 5:30 PM. I thanked
him profusely for his assistance.
Thursday was to be the last day of my trip. I decided to
spend the morning at the Musée D'Orsay, studying
the Degas pastels one last time. They are displayed in climate-controlled,
glass-front cases in two smallish rooms where the lighting
levels border on the crepuscular - to protect against fading.
It takes several minutes for your eyes to adjust. The rarified
atmosphere of those rooms contributes to the viewer's feelings
of awe and reverence, almost as if one were in a house of
Edgar Degas created these images well over a hundred years
ago using, at least in part, pastels he purchased from La
Maison du Pastel, the establishment of Henri Roché,
then located in the rue du Grenier St laazare, in the Marais
district of Paris. The very pastels for which I had been
on Thursday afternoon, following my visit to the Orsay,
and fortified by an excellent lunch with my family at Jules
Verne, high up in the Eiffel Tower, I resumed my quest.
I found my way to number 20 Rue Rambuteau, a small street
near the Centre Pompidou, where the Roché shop had
moved in 1912.
Sandwiched between a pharmacy and a café was the
narrow entrance to a nondescript
courtyard,which bore a small sign with the faded inscription,
"Pastels a la Gerbe, Henri Roché." Inside
the courtyard there was a laundry, and nothing else that
looked even remotely like a store. I went in and out several
times, looking repeatedly at the sign and scratching my
head, and had to ask three different people before someone
directed me to an unmarked door in the corner.
inside, I found myself in a small, dimly lit shop with faded
walls that appeared not to have painted since shortly after
the First World War.
only other customer in the store was being waited on by
a young woman behind a simple wooden counter. There were
no display cases of any kind. The pastels were kept on narrow
shelves in closed wooden boxes which she opened one at a
time, like a jeweler presenting precious gems for inspection.
As I waited for the customer to complete his transaction,
I tried out a few of the colors he was buying, making mental
notes of the ones I particularly liked. There was definitely
something special about them.
Once he left, I began to explain myself to the woman in
French. Fortunately, she answered in perfect English. She
introduced herself as Isabel Roché, a cousin of the
Roché sisters. In response to my questions, she explained
that she had been trained in the art of pastel making by
the two younger sisters after the death of the eldest, the
one who managed the business. When the surviving sisters,
who are now in their eighties, announced their intention
to retire, Isabel decided to abandon a successful career
in engineering and save the family business from extinction.
As she helped me select an assortment of colors, she recounted
some of the family's history. La Maison du Pastel had been
in business in one form or another since the early eighteenth
century. Sometime around 1875, it was taken over by a chemist
named Henri Roché, who had been introduced to the
firm by his friend and former teacher, none other than Louis
Pasteur - himself a part time painter.
Roché began to experiment with the formula, making
continual improvements, with advice from the likes of Degas,
Sisley, Vuillard, and Whistler, who were all his customers.
By 1887 he was producing a range of nearly 500 colors. With
the help of his son, Henri Roché II, a physician,
the business expanded, and by the eve of the First World
War artists could choose from among 1,000 available tints.
Dr. Roché continued to run the business after his
father's death in 1925. At the peak of production, La Maison
du Pastel offered an astonishing array of 1,650 colors.
But during the Second World War, the family was forced to
close the shop and flee to the south of France, where Dr.
Roché resumed his medical practice.
After the war ended, he reopened the shop, which had been
looted, occupied by the Germans, and bombed during the liberation
of Paris. Following his death in 1948, the business was
carried on by his wife and three daughters, right up until
the death of the eldest sister in 1999 at the age of 85.
Since then, Isabel Roché has dedicated herself to
rebuilding the company, whose production had
declined in recent years. By the time she took over, the
stock of pastels was largely depleted. She showed me a rare
treasure; one of only four complete sets known to exist
of all 1,650 colors, packed in a wooden chest with shallow
drawers, which she keeps for reference. (Of the other three
complete sets, two are in museums and one is in private
hands.) At present, Isabel sells about 700 colors - 370
of which have been made since she took over. Will La Maison
du Pastel ever sell 1,650 colors again? She doesn't know,
but her plans are to continue increasing the range.
what about the pastels themselves? Do they live up to their
reputation? I returned home with a small fortune's worth
of pastels in a disconcertingly small box - but with no
regrets. There is undeniably something about them quite
unlike any of the numerous brands I have tried. For one
thing, they are made with very little binder and no fillers,
so the colors are pure and intense. And the texture is unique.
The addition of some very fine pumice gives them a gritty
quality which enables them to "bite" into the
surface of the paper. They are firm, yet yielding. The pigment
transfers effortlessly to paper in a thick, velvety layer,
or a thin veil of shimmering color, depending on the amount
of pressure used, and the colors blend easily with each
Are Henri Roché pastels truly the best in the world?
American artists will finally get the chance to find out
for themselves, as Rochester Art Supply has just become
Roché's first American distributor. They are not
inexpensive, even for hand made pastels, and budget conscious
artists are sure to flinch at the price. But once you try
them, you may begin to feel, as I did, that the price is
not so much of an issue. In my opinion, adding at least
a handful of them to one's pastel box is a rare treat, and
one not to be missed.