Rosalba Carriera

(Venice 1673 - 1757 Venice)

Portrait of a Young Lady, 1720 c.

pastel on paper, laid down on canvas, 61 x 45,5 cm (24.02 x 17.91 inches)

  • Reference: 799
  • Provenance: Venice, S. di Centranigo collection

We would like to thank dr. F. Magani for his help and contribution in studying this pastel by Rosalba Carriera

What can be said about Rosalba Carriera, when she kept on turning down invitations to Düsseldorf at the beginning of the Settecento, sent by Giorgio Maria Rapparini, a Bolognese scholar and secretary to Prince Johann Wilhelm von Pfalz, who aimed at flattering her? That’s how he wrote to her in a letter dated 29 April 1712: “The whole of Venice comes in service from the SerenissimaCasa Palatina and Ms Rosalba stays by the Canal Grande, at the Salute?”. 

The lady painter, who had by then made a name for herself all over Europe, is pivotal in reminding of the network of relationships between collecting and the Venetian art market[1]

Her pictorial genre was portraiture, performed with linear, basic shapes, akin to blunt words. 

The European High Society would have been heavily impressed by her, although in that domestic translation, it appeared to concede to the tranquil bourgeois life, being deprived of clothes fit for the occasion.

As can be seen in the small miniatures that Rosalba succeeded in painting in every shape and intimate circumstance – rings, snuffboxes, pendants; indeed, she had entered the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1705 as an ivory expert, which she called fondelli.

In that captivating world, replete with encounters among new artists, merchants and collectors, she had become immediately friends with another young painter, Antonio Pellegrini. 

We can just picture out the two of them, together in the house Rosalba was renting in San Vio, not an especially striking one, but with a view onto the Grand Canal, for which she paid 70 ducats per year and where her family was staying. 

Pellegrini had married Rosalba Carriera’s sister, Angela, in January 1704, and they always remained very close; even if the two painters were far from each other, they certainly supported one another, especially with regards to international relations. 

It’s been said, in fact, that the new English clients of Antonio Pellegrini – the Counts of Manchester, Carlisle, Burlington and Portland – who were interested in modern cultural choices in the arts, as well as politics and economy – were waiting for the arrival of the artist in London thanks to the mediation of Charles Montagu, the ambassador in Venice; this experience had thus started with the enthusiasm that arises when one can rely on precise commissions. 


The credit opening towards the painter, however, took place thanks to his human congeniality and especially the friendly politeness between the secretary Christian Cole and Rosalba Carriera, who had been in close contact for a few years, so much so that he had busied himself with recommending her entrance into the Accademia in Rome. Very few ladies were admitted there, which is why I believe that men were green with envy at this; on that occasion, he had even defined her as “ornament of Italy and first painter of Europe”[2]

The English man had been fundamental in her nomination; most probably, his fondness for Rosalba had started when he met her in Venice when he was not even thirty, although we know that she showed no real interest in him. And yet, reading their private letters, we understand that he would supply her with special paper and pastels coming from Rome, that were not available in Venice, and tenderly offered to teach her English.

In truth, thanks to her friend, the painter gained access to a considerable amount of commissions from London, while easily staying at home – this is where the ideas of Giorgio Maria Rapparini took shape – since no high-ranking tourist having come from the island could do without being portrayed by her. 

We still enjoy reading the writings by Franca Zava[3], who introduced us discreetly to the private world of this unique family of artists, putting their correspondence together and taking it apart; these days we would call it an extended family, since the painter had a tendency to control the artistic movement in Venice, the business of his most talented colleagues, their competitions and – why not? – the art market she devoted herself to.  

This new pastel of ours presents the stylistic features of Rosalba Carriera’s portraiture, a genre where she obtained sensational results, both in the official repertory as well as with the long series of private half-length portraits; these feature remarkable physiognomies with a sentimental connotation, which answer to the standardization of those subjects from a self-righteouspoint of view. 

The young lady – in her twenties – is portrayed in a direct pose and a close-up framing: her face displays a vigorous character, bringing out an expressive power conveyed by a barely divergent palette, aimed at blending the colour by toning the face in the most protruding material consistency.

Her clothing and the elegant pearls, however, hint that such immediacy nonetheless belongs to high society. 

The self portrait of Rosalba Carriera that entered the Florence Galleria Granducale (now the Uffizi) in 1714 may spring to mind: there, no place is left for vanities, but rather an already romantic idea of the self emerges, certainly not outer beauty. One may think about a sense of virtue seen from a female perspective, interpreting the fortunate theme of the Belle donnethat the Venetian painter had carried out for several collectors at the beginning of the Settecento; she would have summed this virtue up during her existence, or rather excluding men from her private life. 

We know the painter’s views on discrimination or violence of women, carried out by huomini, very well, and she looks resigned. These are powerful themes and not customary ones, since they stem from the semi-clandestine text by Judith Drake, An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, that her English friend Christian Cole had probably commented with her.

Sadly confirming the prejudice, even the Paris collector Pierre Crozat had reassured her in his own way, while encouraging her to reach Paris  “[…] You show nothing of the weakness of women and are better than a hundred men”.

Studies of Rosalba Carriera’s output have been concerned with this aspect, as well, precisely her being a strong woman in a world dominated by men. 

Everybody wanted a painting by Rosalba Carriera, a tendency confirmed in Paris, where she left about fifty portraits. 

Her works embody features of the modern mannerundertaken by European portraiture, here personified by one of its finest representatives, to whom we may add Jacopo Amigoni and Bartolomeo Nazzari.  

In other words, this painting genre should have shown the original expressive means between physical presence and the inner feelings of the sitter; these contaminations had been thoroughly analysed and seen as novelties in the Parisian world, one that Rosalba did not fail to know directly (1720-21). 

One may expect Paris to be the first destination sought after by Venetian artists, given its prestige and richness, and yet we see that the opposite occurs. 

Nonetheless, we have to admit that the organisation of public institutions was well known, and it included the 17thcentury Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. There, artists were subject to a theoretical and practical education, aimed not only at glorifying Louis XIV, but also at clearly defining the essence of a school, by configuring its bigger showcase.  

At the time when the relationship reached its peak, the comings and goings between Paris and Venice were somewhat frequent, although this direction finds resonance in the optimism of the French, and not so much with their Lagoon counterparts.  

Antonio Pellegrini was in Paris for the third time when he wrote to his sister-in-law Rosalba Carriera, on 1 August 1722: “Paris is more beautiful than ever, full of newly erected factories, both in and out of the city; everything shines and everything is a delight; it’s a triumph of riches… How nice it would be, if Paris were closer to Venice; then I’d visit it more often. There is no such grandeur anywhere else and I make the most of it… We attend our courses with ambassador’s carriages, stroll along the Tuilieries and we enjoy life…”[4]

By seeing Paris again, the practical painter almost feels face to face with a dear friend; he sees it as a dream factory, a curious, joyful and open city. Almost devoid of the wall that stood under Louis XIV; his nephew Philip II, the Duke of Orleans, is serving as Regent, and he was about to hand over power to the very young Louis XV, who was only five years old when the Sun King passed away in 1715.  

The French capital is strong and sound, both with regards to its possessions and the manner it shows the culture of the moment, in its splendour and sumptuousness that Pellegrini sees as a contemporary destination, from which he can draw lifeblood, although that environment was not as generous with him as he would have hoped. 

The family had left Venice in April 1720, aboard a four-carriage convoy hosting himself and the Carriera ladies: Rosalba, Giovanna – a painter like her sister – Angela and their mother. And so the painter leaves Venice for the first time and is welcomed as the queen of brushes in Paris, where she visits important homes, galleries, museums and meets prominent figures, thanks to her friends Pierre Crozat and Pierre-Jean Mariette. 

The former was a banker and collector, while the latter a writer and art connoisseur. They had both been to Venice between 1715 and 1719, even though at different times, getting into contact with Rosalba Carriera and Anton Maria Zanetti: the latter would have become one of the most esteemed figures among international art experts, in Paris too, since he had undertaken a research trip that would have taken him as far as London.  

Rosalba Carriera met Antoine Watteau in the genuine company of the Hôtel de Crozat in Rue Richelieu, where the guests would gather in her honour, or in his Montmorency estate, to the north of Paris, formerly owned by the painter Charles Le Brun, where tranquil life seemed to be disturbed only by the music entertainment painted by Nicolas Lancret.

This exchange seems to celebrate the mental horizon on Venice of a contemporary Parisian, as if Rosalba Carriera were an unintentional guide, or rather a happy intuition of Venetian nature and poetry.

At that time, Watteau was crafting his tender paintings, depicting the amusement of ostensible comedians. In itself, this would represent the Venetian feast of the entire Commedia dell’arte, which was once again manifesting itself in Paris in those years, after Louis XIV had previously condemned those coarse Italians. It now appears as a gallant interval that is not lived in a palazzo or between the alleys, but rather with an inviting nature in the background, following that sensibility to garden architecture that was fashionable at the time. 

This may anticipate Romantic feelings, the spirit of a unique milieu that no European city could have offered: elegance, the festive atmosphere, artistic and theatrical creativity. 

That courtly love and its ideal setting emerge in the famous painting The Embarkation for Cythera(Paris, Musée du Louvre), a bright, unspoilt story that takes us in the mystery of the island where Venus was born. 

As soon as the group was back in Venice, Rosalba Carriera commenced working on the canvas that she would have offered to the Paris school of painting, where she had been triumphantly welcomed a year earlier, on 26 October 1720. 

The subject is narrated in a letter addressed to her colleague Antoine Coypel from 10 October 1721, an artist, friend of hers, who had shown her around many galleries and sites in the city: “A nymph from Apollo’s entourage who represents the Paris Academy with a laurel crown. Judging him he is the only worthy one, amongst all the others.” (Parigi, Musée du Louvre). 

Between January and February 1722, the painting entered the wing of the Louvre among the most notable works that glorified the arts and gave eternal memory to the image of the Académie Royale. It occupied the daily headlines thanks to a report published in the magazine “Mercure de France”, promoted by the French friends of Rosalba Carriera, quite clearly the ones sharing Crozat’s view: “It gathers all the parts of painting together, in terms of colour and delicacy of touch; it contains all the grace and ornament that a half-length figure can claim.”

What does Rosalba Carriera want to show with her half-naked girl in the background, adorned with flowers and a laurel crown? 

Luckily, she explained that the young lady is one of Apollo’s Nymphs: he is not to be seen, although he should be the real protagonist in the academic assembly of the arts, being its minister. 

She had stirred ardent passions, resolute ambitions and brimming energies in that voyage into the sun that glossed over those years. 

As is clear in our Portrait of a Lady, artistic education and the command of expressive techniques developed into the most valued virtues of Rosalba Carriera, who became familiar with portraying balanced feelings, with proper gesture, distinguishing and marking social rank on one side, at the same time mingling the behaviour of the elite: in other words, capturing the personal features of the sitter, going over the barriers of conventions, to make him or her one of a kind. 

Thinking about the model sent to Paris and the various stories related to Nymphs, such as Echo condemned by Juno to repeat the last words she heard, or Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, and Thetis, the mother of Achilles, we like to think that the figure portrayed is that of Daphne, who fled from the wild love of Apollo, transforming herself into a laurel. 

It’s as if she wanted to draw our attention by pointing her fingers to it, talking to us, giving us the solution that we sense with the presence of the laurel crown. 

We will never know if that pastel that marks the international entrance of Rosalba Carriera in the congress of French artists is a message to the male professors who were after her, as Apollo had done with Daphne. 

In the subject sent to Paris, touches of transparent pink and white-pale blue emerge, too, as seen in our work: this may offer some credible clues as far as dating is concerned

We may add that it is typical of Rosalba Carriera to merge shape into pale pastel colours, handled with soft shadows. An art rich in swiftness and precision, to a certain extent a sensual one, dissolved into an informal grace that was lost over time. 

This sentimental lady is therefore a new figure: like many travellers, she, too, was probably struck by Venice, as if the memory of a unique experience could revive her complexion from domestic dullness.

Perhaps as she was thinking about the pleasure of having sat for Rosalba Carriera.


[1]As a guidance on bibliography, see: B.Sani, Rosalba Carriera 1673 – 1757. Maestra del pastello nell’Europa ancien régime, Turin 2007 and the exhibition Rosalba Carriera “prima pittrice de l’Europa”, exhibition catalogue (Venice, Galleria di Palazzo Cini at San Vio, 1 September-28 October 2007), edited by G. Pavanello, Venice 2007). Of particular interest is the exceptional essay by A. Scarpa, Omaggio a Rosalba Carriera.Miniature e pastelli nelle collezioni private (Venice, Le Zitelle, Antiques Exhibition), Venice 1997.


[2]“ornamento d’Italia et prima pittrice de l’Europa”.

[3]F. Zava,“M.lle Rosalba très vertueuse pentresse”, in Rosalba Carriera “prima pittrice de l’Europa”, exhibition catalogue (Venice, Galleria di Palazzo Cini at San Vio, 1 September-28 October 2007), edited by G. Pavanello, Venice 2007, pp.15-31 

[4]“Parigi è più bello che mai pieno di bellissime fabbriche nuovamente erette, tanto di dentro che di fuori la città, tutto ridde e tutto brilla; ricchezze più che mai …; così Parigi fosse un po’ più vicino a Venezia, che lo vorrei visitare un po’ più spesso, grandiosità simile non si vede altrove e me la godo … si frequenta il corso in carrozze ambasciatorie, si passeggia l’etuillerie e si vive allegramente …”. 

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