The Artist Who Made Miniatures Grand

VENICE — Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757) was one of the most famous painters of her time. She was greatly admired by prestigious collectors, both in the Venetian Republic and abroad, including French and Habsburg royalty, and by Antoine Watteau, whose portrait she painted. A long lived, very successful independent artist, she did not have the advantage of being the daughter of a painter, as did Giulia Lama, the other 18th-century Venetian woman whose work now attracts attention. The 36 paintings on ivory, together with some pastels (most of which are four by three inches or less) in Rosalba Carriera: Miniatures on Ivory at Ca’ Rezzonico – Museo del Settecento Veneziano include portraits of her male and female admirers; wigged gentlemen and grand ladies; a Bacchanalian scene with three nude couples crowded together in a circular frame, in a curious anticipation of Ingres’s “The Turkish Bath”; a “Rape of Europe,” with three human figures, two putti, and a sheepish-looking bull; “The Three Graces”; “Leda and the Swan”; a girl looking at herself in a mirror; a couple in Carnival dress; and a self-portrait of Carriera with her brushes in hand. The catalogue doesn’t provide dates, so it’s hard to trace her development, but we do know that she eventually went blind. 

Carriera worked on a small scale, but she was emphatically not a modest artist. The conventional subjects of her miniatures were very varied, and both her compositions and their size and medium involved experimentation. This show presents a special group of her works; usually she created full-sized  pastel portraits. Carriera was a figure of the old regime. What could be more problematic nowadays than painting on ivory? And how many of us carry snuffboxes? But the way that she used her medium is boldly original. Just as grand 18th-century people loved to have her paintings on their snuffbox, so many of us have miniature pictures of ourselves or our loved ones as screen savers on our smart phones. Perhaps it is time to consider Carriera as a great artist, and one who transcends time. 

Rosalba Carriera, “Portrait of Edward Walpole and Henry Hyde Cornbury”
Rosalba Carriera, “Madonna in Prayer”
Rosalba Carriera, “Portrait of William Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine”

Rosalba Carriera: Miniatures on Ivory continues at Ca’ Rezzonico – Museo del Settecento Veneziano (Sestiere Dorsoduro, 3136, Venice, Italy) through February 14. The exhibition was curated by Alberto Craievich.

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