At the back of a small courtyard in the Marais there is a tiny shop, open one afternoon a week for 4 hours, selling the finest handmade artist’s pastels. La Maison du Pastel opened its doors for a few small group visits this weekend for the Journées du Patrimoine, and I was lucky enough to be able to get myself a place on the list.
La Maison du Pastel is home to the Pastels Roché, owned and run by the Roché family since 1865, (although it was started in 1720, five years after the death of Louis XIV, making it the oldest pastel house in the world). We were welcomed by Isabelle Roché who took over the family business from cousins 15 years ago, and who has put all her passion and energy into bringing the declining business back to life.
Suppliers of exceptional quality pastels to artists such as Degas, Whistler, Redon and Vuillard, Pastels Roché were producing over 1600 different shades by the 1930s (other quality pastel makers – and there are fewer then 20 of them in the world – produce between 500 and 600). In 1937 they won a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition. During World War II the business was almost completely destroyed, it was revived by the Roché family and run through the 1960s and 70s with some success, thanks to artists such as Sam Szafran, until it eventually started to decline in the 1980s.
The pastels are still made in the original atelier in the countryside 60km outside of Paris, all are handmade from start to finish – from mixing the pigments to rolling each individual pastel. The exact ingredients used are secret, and the results are beautiful, intense shades with an incredible depth of colour, beloved by artists the world over. Isabelle has brought the palette of shades back to just over 1000, the business had almost disappeared when she took over in 2000, and she and her American assistant Margaret continue to develop not only the business but also the amazing range of colours, still producing everything themselves.
Spending an hour listening to the fascinating history of the Pastels Roché, witnessing the passion, hand work and perseverance that has gone into creating and maintaining this very special family business, and watching box after box of beautiful and luminous jewel-like colours being opened on the counter before us, was a joy and a privilege. Artist or not, a visit to this tiny shop is a very special moment.
- La Maison du Pastel, 20 rue Rambuteau, 75003 Paris. métro: Rambuteau
Open Thursday 14:00 – 18:00 or by appointment