Monday, 4 July 2011

Rosalba Carriera

With so many of our talented members working in pastels, I thought it would be a good idea to showcase that pioneer of pastel portaiture, Rosalba Carriera.

Rosalba Carriera painted almost as many selfportraits as Rembrandt. Many show her as a very attractive young woman, but for some reason, "Winter", showing her at the age of 56 and wearing white fur, is the one that has become synonymous with her.

She was born in Venice in 1675 - the daughter of the steward to a noble house and a lacemaker. Her father realised that his three daughters would have to earn their own living, so he gave them the best education he could. Rosalba and her sisters studied Italian, French and Latin. All three were accomplished musicians, Rosalba playing the violin and harpsichord.

She was still very young when she started drawing patterns for her mother to use in her lacemaking. Venice was always a tourist magnet, as it still is today, and Rosalba turned her talent to decorating snuffboxes for the tourist trade. At first she painted pretty patterns, but hit on the idea of "personalising" the snuffboxes by painting miniature portraits on the lids.

Her miniatures were in great demand, and she soon dispensed with the snuffboxes and concentrated on executing orders for miniature portraits. She pioneered the use of ivory rather than vellum for miniatures - an innovation that was popular with the public and copied by other artists. Nobody gave any thought to the unfortunate pachyderms or picketed her studio. The Animal Liberationists are never there when you need them!

Rosalba moved on to pastel portraiture, and indeed was a pioneer in that field. She pioneered more than just her chosen medium - until then, male artists were regarded as the professionals; women were considered to be mere hobbyists. Early in her career, Rosalba, as a woman, was often offered payment in kind: gloves or embroidered sachets, rather than money, by people who looked upon her as something less than a "real artist".

However, her portraits were in great demand. A Carriera portrait became a must-have for prominent foreign visitors to Venice, diplomats and the nobility. No more talk of the little woman hobbyist - she was regarded with respect by her fellow artists. The great Watteau paid her the ultimate compliment by asking her to paint his portrait: the very portrait which is most commonly used today to illustrate any article about him.

Rosalba's portraits were done in the rococo style and were almost always bust length, the sitter's head facing the viewer and the body turned slightly away. She liked to spend time with her subjects, getting to know them. She made preliminary sketches and took a great deal of trouble to reproduce the textures and fabrics accurately. One of her most recognizable techniques was to drag the flat side of a chalk over a contrasting color to simulate lace.

Perhaps her rendering of the sitters' faces was not quite as accurate: she was sometimes criticised for being too kind to her subjects, glossing over blemishes and glamorising their features a little. Well, she wouldn't be the first or last portraitist to employ a bit of judicious PhotoShopping. Painful honesty is all very commendable, but it doesn't pay the bills!

She travelled to Paris in 1721, where she painted Watteau and received so many commissions that her sisters helped her to execute them. She was the first foreign woman to be admitted to the French Academy and in the same year she was elected to the Italian one as well.

She visited Vienna, Modena, Parma and Poland, garnering enthusiastic acclaim and being feted by royalty. At the Court of Poland, she gave lessons to the Queen. The Polish King Augustus III was one of the most ardent admirers of her work and she refused several times to become the full-time Court painter. In the event, the king acquired hundreds of her pictures.

King Augstus III of Poland is an old friend of ours at WAS. (You can refresh your memory about him if you have kept your back numbers of the erstwhile WASP, or you can check the blog archive.

We knew him when he was still Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony: his magnificent portrait by Nicolas de Largillierre hangs in the NGV. He was the first owner of our very own Tiepolo Cleopatra but through unfortunate circumstances (unfortunate for him, but very fortunate for us!) Cleopatra slipped through his fingers and eventually came to rest on the walls of the NGV. Where you can see both of them, free of charge, any time you like.

Crown Prince Frederick Augustus and his father, Augustus the Strong, between them amassed over 800 magnificent paintings, which form the nucleus of the collection at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. Their collection includes major works by the entire First Team of Old Masters, and of course the unrivalled collection of Carrieras.

Rosalba Carriera, attractive, intelligent and successful, had many suitors, but unlike her sisters, she never married. In later life her eyesight deteriorated, perhaps as a result of the years of miniature work, until she was completely blind. She outlived her entire family and died in Venice at the age of 82.

Taking Refuge On The Couch

School holidays are upon us again and a nasty rash of Kiddieflicks has broken out at the cinema. The only remedy is to stock up on DVDs and retire to the couch.

I have discovered a very entertaining series called "Landmarks of Western Art". It comprises six DVDs ranging from art in the late Medieval world to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

I have chosen to watch The Baroque first, having a soft spot for all those diagonals and curves and dramatically lit moments of passion - a nice change after the cool, classic restraint of the Renaissance, but not yet refined to the charming "prettiness" of the Rococo.

I don't mean to denigrate the rococo style; all those floral flourishes and Mozart-like twirly bits are lovely. But today I am in a Baroque mood.

The artworks under discussion are beautifully photographed and the pundits know their baroque onions. They have a few interesting theories of their own to advance and the commentary is engaging, but why the producers saw fit to choose two commentators who both lithp, is beyond me. Surely there are art historians without speech impediments that they could have employed? Maybe perfect diction is an expensive optional extra.

The DVD covers the architecture and sculpture of the era as well as the painting - I liked the part about the arch-rivals Borromini and Bernini. Borromini's gorgeous church of St Agnes in Rome out-baroques the baroque - is there room for one more curlicue?

Bernini's buildings blur the lines between architecture and sculpture with his wonderful high reliefs. His major sculpture, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, has to be up there in the Top Ten with Donatello's David and Michelangelo's Pieta.

Art historian Tim Martin is more restrained in his analysis of St Teresa's writhing ecstasy than Simon Schama, who, in his series "The Power of Art", implies that Teresa is doing her Meg Ryan impression. Well, maybe he's right: the angel above her looks smug enough. Bernini was by all accounts a bit of a lad and that is a facial expression with which he would be familiar!

We then move on to Caravaggio, master of the art of dramatic lighting. Had he been born four centuries later, he would have made his mark as a film noir director. From Italy and Caravaggio, it is a natural segue to Spain and Velasquez, who took Carvaggio as his inspiration.

We check out Poussin and Claude Lorrain in France, then on to the Netherlands: Hals, Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer.

An entertaining and informative program, with lovely pictures. I was sorry when it ended, but I had the Couch-over-Cinema advantage of being able to go back and have another look at the best bits.

Another advantage of the couch over the cinema, is that you can have Interval. The Dutch call it Pauze: in Holland they stop the movie in mid-sentence exactly halfway through, flash PAUZE on the screen in big friendly letters and everyone goes out to eat ice cream and smoke horrid little black cigars. In my house we spend the Pauze making tea and visiting the bathroom.

Back on the couch, I slip Matisse/Picasso into the player.

This is an engrossing film by Philippe Kohly about these two giants of modern art. I think of them as the Warne and McGrath of the art world: each a genius at what they do, but in different ways; two very different temperaments who complement each other. Matisse chose to paint the beauty of the world and ignore things that would disturb the viewer, while Picasso wanted his art to grab the viewer by the throat and make him look at the reality of the world we live in.

Picasso once said: "You have to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."

In spite of their initial rivalry and their very different temperaments, each came to acknowledge the other as his only true equal. They developed a close and complex relationship.

With archive footage and photos and a wealth of examples of their work, the documentary traces the separate paths Matisse and Picasso followed, looks at their points of contact, and sheds light on how the genius of each artist nourished that of the other.

The contributors to the film are all people who knew the artists well and it gives a fascinating insight into their friendship and how each influenced the other's work.