Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757)

A Muse, Rosalba Carriera, mid-1720s, pastel on laid blue paper (Getty Museum, 2003.17) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.


On Monday 12th June 1741, Henrietta Fermor, Countess of Pomfret, was exploring Venice with her travel companions. She had been on a Grand Tour with her husband and two of her daughters since the autumn of 1738. The day in question began with a trip to see the famous and revered Basilica of St Mark, which Henrietta was not too impressed by, describing it as

“very dark and disagreeable”[1]

However, her next activity, she was very taken by.

“From hence we went to see the paintress Rosalba, who is now old, but certainly the best (if not the only) artist in her way. This her excellence does not, however, make her the least impertinent, her behaviour being as good as her work.”[2]

The “paintress Rosalba” has intrigued me since I first read these letters because, I have to be honest, I’d never heard of her (I now know that she is very famous, wonderful and don’t know how I hadn’t come across her). I’ve wanted to do a bit more research and reading about her for a while for a blog post, but recently I went to a fab conference at the University of Sheffield called Women in the Arts in the Eighteenth Century and listened to an amazing paper by Rosie Razzall, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection Trust, discussing Carriera’s work, and it inspired me to finally write my post on Carriera.

Rosalba Carriera was actually one of the most successful female artists of all time and became internationally renowned because of her portraits in pastel. She was one of three daughters and never married: one of her sisters remained unmarried too. She began as a miniaturist and became popular with travellers (just like Henrietta!) who wanted their miniatures painted for snuff boxes as well as pastel portraits.

Records of her are a bit all over the place before 1700, so it has been debated where she apprenticed or learned her technique, though it has been said she was probably self-taught. I also find it really interesting that she remained unmarried, as it effectively meant she was earning her own living and in charge of her own affairs. Of course, her virtuousness as a woman (also pointed out by Henrietta!) elevated her above being seen as a mere businesswoman!

On 27th September 1705, Carriera was elected to the artist’s academy in Rome, to which she submitted her work Girl with Dove. In 1720, she spent a year in Paris and became a member of French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, received in with Nymph of the Train of Apollo. Carriera had been invited to Paris by the collector Pierre Crozat, and was a personal guest at his house in the Rue de Richelieu. Whilst in Paris, she not only painted many fashionable ladies at the court and became friends with many artists living in Paris, including Antoine Watteau, but also undertook a portrait of Louis XV. Watteau was highly impressed with her miniatures. He was also patronised extensively by Crozat.

Carriera was loved in court circles. The elector of Saxony, Frederick-August II, was a huge admirer of her work. His admiration was such that he filled a room in his palace in Dresden with over a hundred of Carriera’s pastels. When she returned to Italy after her stint in Paris, she worked in Modena at the court of the Este family, executing portraits of the Duke’s three daughters. In Venice, she received considerable patronage from Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice. He bought a lot of Carriera’s work and some of the pieces he purchased ended up in the royal collections of George III. She also worked in Vienna.

The end to Carriera’s artistic career is quite a sad one. By 1745, her eyesight began to deteriorate – I read that she had already received an eye operation by this point. Four years later, she was permanently blind so had to stop her artistic career. I cannot get over the sheer beauty of Carriera’s portraits: not only did she popularise pastels as a serious art medium, elevating them beyond their usual function for informal and preparatory work, but she rendered facial expressions so subtly and delicately. Her portraits are less severe and full of the pomp and ceremony of others – perhaps like the Grand Tour portraits executed by Pompeo Batoni for travellers in Rome – leaving you with the feeling that you are looking at a true sense of the sitter’s self.

Find Henrietta’s travel letters to Frances Seymour here:

Anon, (ed.), Correspondence between Frances, countess of Hartford and Henrietta Louisa, countess of Pomfret, Volume III (London: Printed by I. Gold, Shoe Lane, for Richard Phillips, No. 6, Bridge-Street, Blackfriars, 1805)

[1] p.225.

[2] p.225.

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