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Art Matters LI Reflections on various art media, why use pastel, part 5 Carriera origins & history

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Today, we continue with an exploration of two dimensional art media-oil, acrylic, watercolor, and now more about working with pastel. To review: the pigments used in pastels are the same as those used to produce all colored art media, including oil paints; the binder is of a neutral hue and low saturation. The color effect of pastels is closer to the natural dry pigments than that of any other process. Pastels’ vast range of dry pigment colors can be blended just as with liquid paint pigment. Given their versatility, they soon found a place in the artist’s toolbox.

Pastels’ origins as a full-fledged art medium lead back to northern Italy during the Renaissance after Italian artists brought pastels into mainstream use along with use as a medium for preparatory studies. The earliest use of pastel began with Renaissance and Mannerist Artists including Da Vinci, Tuscan artists-Jacopo Bassano and Frederico Barocci, French Court artists: Jean (pere, c. 1485-1541) and François (fils, c.1516-1572) Clouet and Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist whose family lived in Basel while working in England for the later part of his life in the court of Henry VII & VIII.

Now, a focus on a well-known Venetian pastelist, Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), whose celebrated works began with small portraits on snuff boxes. Carriera’s work can be called Rococo, a light, airy and decorative style that was popular in the early years of the 18th Century. The Rococo followed the Baroque Era which spanned most of the 17th Century includes Clouet & Holbein who are on the cusp of the Rococo style. Baroque style which is most renowned for the term “chiaroscuro” or the intense use of light and contrasting dark found in the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, Caravaggio and Vermeer, among others. All of these artists are better known for their works in oil, not pastel.

Rosalba’s fine portraits began as miniatures on snuff boxes and soon morphed into miniature pastels. Her childhood training in the family business of tatting (lace-making), including pattern design, taught her the patience and delicate touch required for the snuff boxes. Carriera came to paint miniatures on snuff box lids as a result of the declining interest in lace. Her miniature works soon became portraits and by 1703 she moved onto using pastel almost exclusively for her works. In 1705, Rosalba was named an 'accademico di merito' by the Roman Accademia di San Luca, a title reserved for non-Roman painters. Distinguished visitors to Venice all clamored to sit for her portraits of them (remember prior to the photograph, paintings were how courtships & historic events were recorded). Famous sitters in her early period included Maximillian II of Bavaria, Frederick IV of Denmark and a bevy of Venetian court ladies.

Frederick IV of Denmark

Female Portrait with Mask, Rosalba Carriera

Part of the interest in the works of Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) stems from her unique position as perhaps one of the first accepted and celebrated female artists. Few are mentioned in the history books prior to the Victorian era and even Rosalba’s notoriety in her era did not suffice for much recognition beyond her lifetime. In her 40’s, Carriera traveled to Paris as the guest of the influential art collector and connoisseur Perre Crozat. Her stay there from 1720-21 brought the art of pastel portraiture to the court of Louis XV who had returned from Versailles to his opulent Parisian hotels particulaiers (private homes in the city). These smaller spaces versus the vast expanses of Versailles were well suited to the more intimate Dutch and Flemish gouache and chalk drawings that had become popular as were the portraits of Carriera which were soon in great demand.

While in Paris, Carriera painted Antoine Watteau (he & his nephew and grand nephew were famous for their romanticized depictions of the entertainments of the aristocracy, more on them another time), and much of Louis XV’s court including the King. And in Paris, received another honor never before bestowed on a woman when she was elected to the Academy Francais by acclamation. Her refined portraits were loved by her sitters, as they were flattering, employing a three-quarter view bust length pose with the head turned towards the viewer. She had a keen eye for textures and patterns (lace pattern making must have trained her eyes) including fabrics, gold braid, lace, furs, jewels, hair and skin, all indicative of her patrons’ wealth and luxurious life-style.

Carriera was not alone in Paris. Her brother-in-law, painter Antonio Pellegrini, married to her sister Angela, was there. Pellegrini was there to paint the ceiling of the Grand Salle in Scottish financier John Law’s new Bank. Also accompanying her were her mother and sister Giovanna. Both sisters assisted Rosalba in painting the hundreds of commissions she was presented with during her stay. Giovanna’s aid was especially important, their work was crucial in support of the family. Her diary from this time was published by Antonio Zanetti, Abbe Vianelli, in 1793 and so too was her extensive correspondence.

Carriera’s brief year-plus in Paris was amazingly influential, contributing to the formation of the tastes of the new aristocracy and by extension Parisians in general. Carriera’s art extended beyond the wants of the monarchy, injecting her sense of freedom, color and playfulness into what became known as the Rococo style. Her pastel portraits were only possible because of the development of cast plate glass which provided the necessary protection for this powdery medium and finally allowing works beyond the size of her early miniatures. Pastels were accepted as the equal of oil in the eyes of Eighteenth Century viewers. Other contemporary pastelists accepted into their country’s Academy of Arts included French artists Maurice Quentin de La Tour and Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun and English artists John Russell and Francis Cotes. Some also held royal appointments, further testimony to pastels’ widespread acceptance. Next time, more on Rosalba Carriera, an early example of female artists who were recognized and accepted, and some of Carreira’s well-known Rococo contemporaries.


Self-Portrait 1701 & Louis XV

Face of the Moon,, John Russell, English pastelist

Janet Cornacchio is an artist member of Front Street Art Gallery, President of Scituate Arts Association & a Realtor. You can contact her at

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