Rosalba Carriera was the Queen of Pastel. That title meant something when it became her nickname at the height of Carriera’s painting career, but now, not so much. Pastels are a pretty dethroned medium and the portraits of European nobles and kings that were this Venetian, 18th-century artist’s crowning glory have fallen out of favor, leaving her legacy in a bit of a powdery lurch.
A recent biography, The Life and Work of Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757): The Queen of Pastel (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) is the first major English-language text on her and claims that she deserves a fixed place in art history. If we look beyond Carriera’s saccharine pastels of coiffed ladies and pale-skinned royals, the book argues, we’ll see things outside the frame that made her no garden-variety lady painter.
“Although several women painters of the 16th and 17th centuries had international reputations,” wrote art historians Linda Nochlin and Sutherland Harris in the catalog of their 1976 landmark exhibition, Women Artists, “none enjoyed as great a success nor had as much influence on the art of her contemporaries as Rosalba Carriera.”
For one thing, Carriera had serious technical prowess (despite the fact that the details of her artistic training are unknown, and she didn’t apprentice in a family workshop). Carriera pioneered using ivory as a support for miniature portraits, which were worn as jewelry or used to decorate the lids of tobacco snuffboxes. This innovation made her miniatures so coveted that Carriera knock-offs started surfacing on the art market by the time she was just in her mid-30s. People liked “to baptize copies and other things in her name,” reported one of Carriera’s contacts in Dusseldorf in 1709, a testament to how she already represented enviable quality at the beginning of her long career.
Over time, Carriera developed enough specialized expertise — and confidence — to write an artist’s manual. “It was not common at all for a female artist to write a handbook,” art historian Angela Oberer, author of The Life and Work of Rosalba Carriera, told Hyperallergic. The manuscript is kept at the Venice state archive, where it is the only 18th-century Venetian text of its kind.
Beyond her technical innovations and skill, Carriera was also a savvy entrepreneur. “Early female artists working in Italy were not only painters,” Linda Falcone, director of the Florence-based Advancing Women Artists foundation, told Hyperallergic. “They were expert marketers.”
Living in Venice allowed Carriera to market herself to the lagoon’s steady stream of travelers, who (like today) were eager to fill suitcases with portable and bespoke keepsakes. This empowered Carriera to paint on her own terms, hand-picking which English aristocrats, German kings, and French connoisseurs she wanted to work with instead of banking on the whims of local patrons. And she managed her busy workshop and international correspondence herself, unusually without a man overseeing any of the business transactions.
Carriera’s crowning triumph, though, was popularizing pastels. Pastels had been around for a while by the time she took up these sticks made from colored pigments and a white base. But no one was standing in line to be drawn with pastel crayons until Carriera made them stylish.
“Carriera’s achievement in promoting pastel in an unprecedented way is an extraordinary fact in itself,” Oberer writes in the biography. “When she started using it, the medium was not in particularly high esteem.” Pastels were used for sketches, not completed artworks that commanded market prices.
Thanks in no small part to Carriera’s skill and clever marketing, pastel portraits became one of the most popular art forms of the Rococo and Enlightenment eras. There was much to like about pastels: the colors were bright and mixed easily, pigments didn’t need to dry, which led to shorter portrait sittings, and the portable pastel sticks allowed artists to draw from anywhere. (As far as artistic gadgets go, if oil painting was a bulky desktop computer then pastel was a smartphone.)
And since Carriera saw pastel’s potential before her fellow Venetian artists did, she dominated the market for quickly made, lightweight portraits that appealed to high-end tourists. Oberer writes: “This trade became hers.”
Carriera feverishly worked in pastel for decades, until eyesight problems forced her to slow down and ultimately stop around the 1740s. Three operations couldn’t cure her of cataracts, which eventually blinded her completely. For the last seven years of her life Carriera described living “as though I were in the darkness of the night.”
She probably would have continued working if she could, but didn’t have to anymore. Years of painting had made her a wealthy woman. (At the time of her death, Carriera owned 24,556 ducats. As a comparison, her Venetian contemporary Antonio Canaletto left behind 2,588 ducats when he died.)
Now, with the release of a biography in English, maybe Carriera’s art historical value will match a bit of the esteem she commanded in her lifetime.
The Life and Work of Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757): The Queen of Pastel by Angela Oberer is published by Amsterdam University Press and is available online and at indie bookstores.
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Author: Karen Chernick