I feel like I’m seeing Rosalba Carriera everywhere these days. The Venetian portraitist has undergone something of a renaissance recently. A new book about her – the first ever published in English – came out last year, and tons of articles followed. (Unfortunately, I have not read the book, because it is insanely expensive.) The Frick Collection put its pair of recently-acquired Carrieras on view for the first time at Frick Madison. Seeing those two works in person finally got me fully on board the Rosalba Carriera bandwagon, and I’m a big fan now.
If you’ve read my many other posts about women artists, I probably don’t have to reiterate at this point that being a professional female artist before the mid-20th century was quite the feat, and being a successful, well-respected one was even more of an achievement. Just know that Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) was both. Even more impressively, she pioneered two new fields – miniature painting in watercolor on ivory (rather than on vellum) and pastel portraiture. She’s more famous today for the latter. Although pastel had previously been an insignificant medium used primarily for studies, Carriera turned it into a fashionable medium for high-society portraiture and established herself as its foremost practitioner. That’s why she was, and still is, called the “Queen of Pastel”.
Many of her sitters were Grand Tourists – wealthy Europeans who flocked to her hometown of Venice and other Italian cities to see the sights and soak up the culture. She also portrayed notables elsewhere during her extensive travels. By the end of her career, she was successful enough to be very exclusive about who she portrayed. Her subjects included a young Louis XV of France, Archduchess Marie Teresa of Habsburg, Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony, as well as plenty of English and Irish aristocrats.
A bit like the later Rosa Bonheur, Carriera talent and innovation helped people to see beyond her gender and appreciate her greatness. Royals across Europe feted her and commissioned their portraits from her; the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris both gave her membership at a time when they had few female members. Rosalba was reportedly a savvy businessperson and all-around intelligent lady who frequented the intellectual salons characteristic of Grand Tour-era Italy. Poets dedicated verses of praise to her. She even wrote her own artists’ manual, though it was never published.
Rosalba Carriera’s life as a successful female artist in the 1700s is interesting, but I’m more drawn to her art than her biography. Her works are simply delightful, and it’s not difficult to see why they’ve attracted so much attention recently. Her pastel portraits are pure Rococo – fun, colorful, frothy, and sometimes slightly irreverent. Both her male and female sitters dress in the height of fashion, with gorgeous clothes and hats, flowing hair, and copious accessories. A few even appear with their pets. Her images are appealingly witty and suggest carefree lives of parties and pleasure. Some are portraits, others are allegorical figures, and still others straddle the line between the two. She also made self-portraits, including the memorable Self Portrait as “Winter”, wearing luxurious furs.
Carriera’s medium only heightens all of these delicious Rococo qualities. As I discovered at Frick Madison, pastels are best appreciated in person. It’s only up close that you can really enjoy the loose, sketch-like technique she used to create polished images with beautiful textures. The effect is intimate and immediate, giving a sense of Carriera’s presence and hand beyond what comes through most oil portraits. Pastel on paper creates a surface that’s matte but colorful, which adds even further to the confectionery qualities of her style and subject matter. Her works remind me of John Singer Sargent’s charcoal portraits, which I enjoyed in an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 2019. Carriera and Sargent both succeeded created an elite taste for portraits on paper, largely through masterfully expressive technique that still resonates today. (But I would like to emphasize that Carriera did it first!)
A lot has been made of the erotic tones detectable in some of Carriera’s pastels, such as her famous A Young Lady with a Parrot. It is true that there are a surprising number of bare boobs, or at least very deep cleavage, in her works. And unlike the female nudes of someone like Artemisia Gentileschi, Carriera’s definitely give a vibe closer to a tasteful pin-up than the socially-sanctioned nude of history painting. While there is a long artistic tradition of nude or semi-nude female figures as objects of desire, such as Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino, Carriera is the only woman artist I’m aware of to explore it. Maybe that’s why hers feel different. Her subjects seem to be active participants who are fully in on the fun, rather than the passive objects of voyeurism. In other words, I think that Carriera gives these female figures both class and agency, and it’s difficult not to think that has something to do with the artist being a female herself. This also makes them significantly less uncomfortable to view, at least in my opinion.
While risque subject matter itself would not merit mention in the work of a male artist of this period, it was an unusual choice for a lady. Being accepted as any kind of professional woman in the 18th century necessitated cultivating a reputation for being virtuous and socially benign. In that context, making sexy pictures was a pretty risky move. However, documentary evidence suggests that everybody was fine with it. I get the sense that Rosalba Carriera just did things her own way, with a confidence that convinced people pretty quickly. I think I would have liked her.
- “Rosalba Carriera: the pastellist whose ‘images came from heaven’“. Christie’s. July 17, 2020.
- Baker, Christopher. “Fruitful pastels – the colourful career of Rosalba Carriera“. Apollo. November 27, 2020.
- Chernick, Karen. “The Remarkable Success Story of Rosalba Carriera, the Original ‘Queen of Pastel’“. Hyperallergic. October 14, 2020.
- Haight, Emily. “Venetian Virtuoso: Rosalba Carriera“. National Museum of Women in the Arts. October 6, 2015.
- Heguiaphal, Maia. “Rosalba Carriera: The Accomplished Pastellist“. DailyArt Magazine. March 1, 2021.
- Oberer, Angela. “‘I feel again the violence of a curious desire’: Rare client testimonies on Rosalba Carriera’s erotic art“. ArtHerstory. October 23, 2020.
For those who are interested, the new book about Carriera is Angela Oberer’s The Life and Work of Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757): The Queen of Pastel (Amsterdam University Press, 2020).