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.

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