Self-Portrait: The Singular Career of Artist Rosalba Carriera

An interview with Angela Oberer, author of Rosalba Carriera, the first English language illustrated biography of the acclaimed 18th century Venetian artist
JOANN LOCKTOV
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Painter, musician, writer, linguist, and family matriarch, Rosalba Carriera was an astonishingly successful woman in 18th century Venice, all the more extraordinary because of her choice to not marry, and to instead live independently. Rosalba Carriera by Angela Oberer is the first English language illustrated biography of this acclaimed Rococo artist, whose exquisite miniatures and innovative pastel paintings were coveted by royalty and aristocrats throughout Europe. The monograph examines Carriera’s life in the historical context of Venetian culture and commerce and offers startling new interpretations to help us understand her art, life, and influences.

We spoke with author Angela Oberer about her work on this fascinating figure.

As an art historian what initially drew you to the work of Rosalba Carriera?

I have to admit that initially I was not interested in Rosalba Carriera because of her art but because of the fact that she had two sisters. At the time, I was studying sister relationships. So, when I stumbled upon Carriera’s self-portrait in the Uffizi, where the painter depicted herself presumably with Giovanna, the sister who became her assistant, I became curious. Once I read Rosalba’s entire correspondence – two volumes published by Bernardina Sani back in 1985 – I was mesmerized and started looking into her paintings. Practically none of her works had ever been interpreted, studied in depth, or put in an iconographic or social context. A huge amount of material is basically untouched, and every step you take offers new insights. I really love it, and I can only invite students looking for something to work on to dive in. There is so much more to do.

Woman with a Dog by Rosalba Carriera, The Cleveland Museum of Art, OH

In the course of your extensive research and writing what do you feel was the most surprising accomplishment of this extremely accomplished Venetian painter?

The one thing that really did surprise me was to discover that Carriera was not only a trendsetter in technique and style – she sparked off the fashion of pastel portraits in Europe – but that she produced a substantial amount of erotic and eroticizing art. Some of her clients clearly talk about the effect her paintings had on them. I did not see this coming at all. Also, eventually it was enough for her clients just to possess a work by Carriera; the subject matter did not necessarily matter that much anymore. And, if my interpretation of her formula of flattering, embellishing portraits of women is correct, not only the importance of “owning a Carriera” astonished me but even more so the importance of “being a Carriera”; that is, being recognized as a Carriera, which meant belonging to a certain social class and representing a certain ideal of beauty. These women seem to have shared a sense of collective identity which implied elevated social and cultural status, exclusive taste, refined manners, femininity, and most likely public prominence. It is a true phenomenon that I had not seen before.

Rosalba Carriera was a polymath–linguist, writer, musician, and painter. Her intellect was matched by her fertile creative mind and astute financial skills. With all of her achievements I found it very surprising that rather than learn her art skills from a male family member, she primarily taught herself. Do you feel she may have inherited her grandfather’s artistic talent, which then inspired her focus on painting?

The research regarding Carriera’s teacher or teachers is ongoing. Various names have been and keep being mentioned as a possibility, but no conclusive analysis has been published yet. I leave this discussion to my colleagues. Now that Carriera is finally coming back into the conversation and into the interest of art historians, more studies are being published. Maybe we just have to wait until somebody finds a more satisfying answer. All I can say is that she might have learnt a great deal by herself, but I really don’t insist on this point. I would be more than happy if anybody discovered something more precise.

Regarding her grandfather, again, we don’t know enough to be able to establish any direct influence on Rosalba. Until we find new documents, I am afraid that would be pure speculation.

Angela Oberer (Photo: Angela Oberer)

I was perplexed by the fact that when Rosalba was invited to create a submission to the prestigious Accademia di San Luca in Rome she refused to send the required self-portrait. Eventually, her portrait was painted and submitted by Sebastiano Bombelli, and she received the highest title of “accademia di merito.” However, the entire application process seemed painful for her. Can you conjecture why she would have refused to comply with this specific requirement of a self-portrait? For an artist who controlled every aspect of her life, her decision seemed counterintuitive.

I completely agree. I would never have expected her to leave this task to somebody else. It is a conjecture, as you said, but considering how much she struggled, how many excuses she invented, over and over again procrastinating the submission of her admission piece, which was a miniature, precisely the art she had specialized in until that point, she may have felt too intimidated to follow through. Maybe she wanted to avoid what could have been criticized or valued by others (and maybe by herself) as inferior or even embarrassing. But again, this is all conjecture.

Although most of Rosalba Carriera’s work exists outside of Venice, it is possible to see her paintings at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Ca’Rezzonico, Palazzo Grimini, and Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Can you share with us your favorite works to see in Venice and why they represent her growth as an artist?

I love the miniature of Philip Wharton in Ca’ Rezzonico where this young English man is looking at you with a hint of a smile on his lips. I was struck by the fact that he is shown without a wig, i.e. without a visible sign of order but with red turban-like headgear. To show oneself in this way meant deliberately choosing to be seen as eccentric or even deviant. It is a beautiful and fascinating piece that definitely deserves to be studied more in detail.

Another piece I adore is the pastel portrait of Suor Maria Caterina in the same museum, one of the most intense and impressive renderings of an ageing nun I know.

However, Carriera’s self-portrait in the Accademia is my absolute number one. It was Carriera’s last self-portrait. She was over 70 years old at that point, slowly turning blind, and she depicted herself with a tired, sad, pensive face and thin white hair. I read the painting as a representation of old age and melancholy which implies physical decline but also characteristics of a genius. And in fact, Carriera crowned herself with laurel, underlining her professional success and achievement. It is also an attribute of divine origin and thus further emphasizes her pride. At that point, at the end of her life, Carriera was far from being intimidated by anybody. What a powerful statement this painting is.

Self Portrait (Image: Accademia Gallery Venezia)

Rosalba Carriera was successful in elevating miniatures and work in pastels to international renown. She seemed to have had an innate talent for identifying less popular areas to pursue, which enabled her to flourish. As with her decision to remain single, her life seems to have been a series of clever and contrarian decisions, all the more impressive when we remember this was the 18th century. Historically dismissed as a Rococo painter, do you feel that a deeper understanding of her illustrious life will lead her to regain prominence again as a remarkable artist?

Her illustrious and extraordinarily successful life is definitely captivating. Together with the clever strategies she used in her private and professional life, Carriera is indeed a very fascinating figure. But I also think that she has regained prominence because we have new keys for unlocking the meaning of her oeuvre. Instead of simply looking at her paintings, acknowledging the superb technique, and appreciating the outstanding beauty, today museum visitors can finally understand her work more deeply, and consequently appreciate her artistic and intellectual capacities. I managed to convince the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, the museum that owns the biggest collection of Carriera paintings in the world, to organize an exhibition of her work. It was spectacular. Ca’ Rezzonico had a beautiful exhibition of her miniatures. Compared to when I started my research, the number of studies, articles or simply entries on the web regarding Carriera has grown enormously in the last five years. She is one her way back, and I am delighted. Carriera’s art will conquer the world again – as it did 300 years ago. You will see.

Read more of JoAnn Locktov‘s Interviews and Articles on YtaliGlobal, and visit her website.

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Self-Portrait: The Singular Career of Artist Rosalba Carriera ultima modifica: 2024-07-04T01:23:49+02:00 da JOANN LOCKTOV
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