Carriera, Rosalba (1675–1757)

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Carriera, Rosalba (1675–1757)

Italian portrait painter who was known for her miniatures and pastels. Born in Venice, Italy, on October 7, 1675; died in Venice in 1757; eldest of three daughters of Andrea (a Venetian clerk) and Alba (Foresti) Carriera (a lacemaker); sister-in-law of Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675–1741).

Selected works:

Horace Walpole (Lord Walpole Collection, Wotterton Hall, Norfolk); Allegory of Painting (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); Africa (from the cycle The Four Continents, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden); Abbé Leblond (Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice); Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice); Robert, Lord Walpole (Victoria and Albert Museum, London); Woman at Her Dressing Table (Cleveland Museum of Art); Portrait of a Man (National Gallery, London).

Of the few women painters who gained renown during the 18th century, none enjoyed the international reputation and success of Rosalba Carriera, an artist who made her name as a miniaturist, before popularizing pastel as a medium for serious portraiture. Unfortunately, as the Rococo style went out of fashion, the aesthetic value of her art declined, and her historical significance was eclipsed by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, who, largely influenced by Carriera, went on to become the acknowledged 18th-century master of the pastel medium.

The details of Carriera's early life are not well documented. She was born in Venice, Italy, on October 7, 1675, the eldest daughter Andrea Carriera, a modest Venetian official, and Alba Foresti Carriera , a lacemaker. Following her father's death in 1719, she lived most of her life with her widowed mother and unmarried sister Giovanna Carriera , who became her assistant. Her sister Angela married the painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, who acted as Carriera's agent and was largely responsible for her popularity in England.

Carriera displayed an early interest in art, perhaps influenced by her grandfather, a painter. She probably began by designing lace patterns for her mother, then graduated to decorating the lids of snuff boxes and painting miniatures on ivory (2×3 or 3×4 inches in size). Her miniature portraits gained her entrance into the Academy of Saint Luke, Rome, in 1705. By one account, her miniature of a girl holding a dove so impressed an official of the Academy that he sat and stared at it for half an hour, mesmerized by the white-on-white technique of the dove. Her work was of such merit that she was made an accademico di merito, a title reserved for a few special artists for whom the normal tests for admission were waived. By this time, she had also sent work to Paris and was receiving as many commissions as she could handle. In these early years, she also showed a musical inclination and was known to have considerable skill on the violin.

A friend is credited with sending Carriera the pastels that would alter the course of her work. Although black, white, and red chalk had long been used for sketching, pastels—crayons made of a dried paste comprised of ground and mixed pigment, chalk, and gum—were just beginning to gain recognition. They were used at first to make copies of oil paintings, and artists liked the speed and versatility they provided, as well as the color range and versatility. On the practical side, pastels were less expensive than paint and did not require sitters to spend hours posing in smelly studios. There is evidence that Carriera was using pastels for portraits as early as 1703, though she is said to have complained to one patron in 1706 that she was so busy painting miniatures that she did not have time to learn pastel technique. Whereas she established her reputation in the medium of pastel, she would produce works in both media for most of her career.

Characterized by their light, delicate, and elegant effect, Carriera's Rococo-style portraits were a perfect match for pastels. Working small, she increased her speed, turning out an enormous number of portraits. Her sister Giovanna also helped by filling in the backgrounds and draperies of the pictures. Most unique about Carriera's work, whether in paint or pastel, was her ability to flatter her subject without losing their sense of individuality. As Germaine Greer writes in The Obstacle Race: "She eschewed pompous detail and concentrated instead upon the expressiveness of the countenances she observed." In Women Artists: 1550–1950, Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin elaborate: "In an age when it was far more important for a woman to be physically attractive than it is now, Rosalba's ability to render all her female subjects charming without reducing their features to bland stereotypes was much appreciated." Men also seemed to admire Carriera's talent, as an impressive number sat for her, including the artist Antoine Watteau, and her informal portrait of Lord Robert Walpole is considered to be one of her best miniatures.

Carriera became well recognized in Italy, where she was elected to membership in the academies of Bologna and Florence, as well as Saint Luke's in Rome. Her informal small portraits, however, were more popular with foreign clients—from Germany, France, and England—than with the Venetians. While this was due in part to Venice's economic decline, it also reflected the city's ceremonial tradition of large, full-length, formal oil portraiture, though there were apparently few artists around at the time to paint them.

In 1720, at the urging of her friend Pierre Crozat, a wealthy Parisian banker and art collector, Carriera and her family visited Paris, and she took the city by storm. One of her first sitters was the young king Louis XV, after which she was besieged by noble patrons and entertained by the cream of Parisian society. In October of that year, she was made a member of the French

Academy, in spite of a 1706 rule forbidding the admission of any more women. Establishing a fashion for pastel portraits that persisted in France well into the 19th century, Carriera not only influenced the artist Maurice Quentin de la Tour but also several talented women as well, including Marie Suzanne Giroust-Roslin (1734–1772), Magdalene Basseporte , and Theresa Concordia Mengs (1725–1808). There is evidence that Carriera actually taught the medium to Basseporte, who later gave up the genre to become a flower portraitist. In Italy, she trained Felicità and Angioletta Sartori, Antoinette Legru , and Marianna Carlevaris .

Carriera's diary entries from Paris describe processions of visitors, sittings, and a round of excursions to see the city's sights and art collections. According to Greer, the artist had no difficulty charming her wealthy patrons and handled her busy social calendar with grace and some flair. She is described as not particularly pretty but stylish in dress, articulate, and personable. Other biographers, however, point out that Carriera was not gregarious by nature and soon wearied of the social whirl of Paris. She returned to Venice in the spring of 1721, where she settled into a quiet life on the Grand Canal and dedicated herself to her work. She left the city only rarely: once in 1723, on a commission assignment to Modena, and to Vienna for six months to work for Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI.

Basseporte, Magdalene (?–c. 1780)

French artist. Name variations: Madeleine Basseporte. Born Frances Magdalene Basseporte; died around 1780.

Magdalene Basseporte painted subjects from natural history in watercolors, executing three books of flowers, which were engraved by Avril. She also engraved some plates for the Crozat College and for others, including The Martyrdom of S. Fidelio de Sigmaringa (after the work of P.A. Robert) and Diana and Endymion (after a design by Sebastiano Conca).

In 1737, the artist was devastated by the death of her sister Giovanna from tuberculosis and lapsed into a depression that kept her from working for several months. Her greatest personal tragedy, however, was the gradual loss of her eyesight, which became of serious consequence in 1746 (her later self-portraits show a weakness in her left eye). Several cataract operations only delayed the inevitable, and her worsening condition contributed to a deepening depression in her later years. One of the best and most moving of her many self-portraits was made shortly before she went blind and is described by Harris and Nochlin: "She faces us almost directly but her gaze is withdrawn, her lips firmly set. The choice of dark fur robes and the somber mood can be read, in retrospect, as signs of her approaching isolation from her profession and her unhappy last years." After a decade of total blindness, Carriera died in 1757, in a state of complete mental collapse.


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1979.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Carriera, Rosalba (1675–1757)

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