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Art Matters LII Reflections on various art media, why use pastel, part 6- Carriera origins & history

Today, continues an exploration of two-dimensional art media-specifically 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. Pastel’s 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: To date, we’ve looked at 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; Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist who worked in England for the later part of his life in the court of Henry VII & VIII and most recently, a Venetian woman, Rosalba Carriera who brought pastel portraiture into common usage in the French court and elsewhere and whose style is characteristic of the Rococo period in art.

Rosalba Carriera began her youth working with lace patterning and moved onto decorating snuff boxes with painted miniatures. Soon, Rosalba was doing exclusively pastel portraits, often portraits of distinguished Venetians and their guests. Carriera is one of the first openly celebrated and accepted female artists, acclaimed by her peers in the French Academy during a brief visit to Paris during her 40’s. There, she produced countless portraits of the royal court, including Louis XV, with the assistance and support of her two sisters and other accompanying family members.

Carriera’s time in Paris was brief, merely a year or two, and then she and her family returned home to Venice with her newly developed means to show portraits: paintings under cast plate glass! Without plates to protect it, displaying pastel medium like charcoal and sketches was difficult, paper bases (grounds) are subject to degradation and the media themselves whether pastel, graphite or charcoal all smudge and may become soiled. Watercolors, too, fare better under glass.

Upon her return to Venice, Rosalba and her sister, Giovanna, continued to produce countless portraits for the next 17 years until her sister died leaving Rosalba in despair. During those years, they worked together, traveling to Modena, Parma and Vienna, fulfilling commissions for various courts and being greeted with great enthusiasm. In Vienna, it was the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the VI, a supportive benefactor who collected more than 150 of Carriera’s pastels. While Rosalba was there, the Empress studied under her tutelage. Her creations for the HRE court now reside in Dresden as the basis of a large collection in the Alte Meister Gallery. Then, too, the same is reported of Augustus III of Poland, perhaps her greatest patron, he first sat for her in 1713. He, too, amassed a great collection of her pastels and his queen also studied under Rosalba and his Augustus’ collected works also eventually went to Dresden. In makes one wonder, which account is true? The point is she had great and powerful patrons… a female! And she produced numerous works which formed the basis of important public collections.

Carriera’s last years where not as happy for after Giovanna’s death, Rosalba suffered not only from depression but also from loss of vision and eventually despite early attempts at cataract surgery, became blind. She died after a long life at 84 in the family home outside of Venice having outlived the Rococo Style which had been such an intrinsic part of her art. Carriera’s influence remained an important one for the many of the women artists who followed after her-Catherine Read, Adelaide Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Louise Bigee-LeBrun and, her sisters, Giovanna and Angela and students, Marianna Carlevarijs, Margherita Terzi and Felicita Sartori.

Aside from those whom Carriera taught, worked beside and did commissions for, Carriera’s technical influence continues to this day. The binding of colored chalk into sticks which she pioneered allowed for a far wider range of prepacked colors turning pastel into a much more desirable medium. Carriera’s influence spread the use of pastel and the Rococo style through Europe-to the courts of England (where George III also collected her work), Paris, Poland, Vienna and Venice.

Despite her fame as an artist and progenitor of the Rococo style, Carriera was treated as a rarity, a successful woman artist. The impact of Carriera’s name dissipated with the end of the Rococo style which she initiated, as she was “only a woman and anyway her style was no longer important.” Rosalba’s choice “pastello,” Italian for paste, whose sticks where formed by pounding pigment with mortar and pestle, was soft and pleasing to work with. It was the perfect style for her medium with its pastel colors, spontaneous chalk strokes, subtle shifts in tone and soft yet elegant approach to the subject. Plus the blue ground on which Carriera typically worked contrasted so effectively with luminous nature of her medium. Lastly, there was Carriera’s instinctive ability to understand and portray the personality of her sitter. Only a woman, but her style lingered for nearly a century throughout her long lifetime and her numerous works are in collections through Europe and beyond.

During Carriera’s lifetime Europe and the Americas saw the end of the Age of Kings and the rise of the Middle Classes and the Age of the Enlightenment. The movement that gave rise to the American Revolution and on the continent, the French Revolution, came about not long after Rosalba’s death. Pastel at this time was a medium that was simpler, more portable and available to not just the nobility but the growing merchant or middle classes. Crayon-makers and cast plate glass brought portrait art and the ability for those other than the nobility to afford family heirlooms and remembrances of their family members past. Such remembrance was not available to the masses as yet (that would come with photography), but to the comfortable members of society. And Rosalba Carriera who begun life patterning lace and painting snuff boxes and whether knowingly or luckily, was at the forefront of that societal transformation and who was celebrated by the aristocracy who were soon to fall in the process.

Next, a look at some of Carriera’s contemporaries-Chardin & Watteau specifically.


Self Portrait, 1746


Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony, 1739



Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo,Venetian Lady, House of Barbarigo, 1735



Janet L Cornacchio

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



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