For centuries, the European art establishment did not take miniature paintings or pastel art seriously, categorizing them as feminine and thus unworthy of academic esteem. That changed in the early 18th century when Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) leveraged the untapped potential of both genres to launch one of the most lucrative and influential artistic careers in history. From her early painted miniatures to the elegant pastel portraits for which she is now remembered, these 10 examples of Rosalba Carriera’s art not only illustrated the Rococo era but actually helped define it.
1. Rosalba Carriera’s Self-Portrait
Rosalba Carriera’s art has an unlikely, and in some parts unclear, origin story. Unlike most professional women artists in 18th-century Venice, Carriera did not come from a wealthy family, had no direct connections to the art world, and was presumably self-taught as a portrait painter. Regardless, by age 30, Carriera was financially independent and internationally recognized as an artist—so much so that the illustrious Medici family commissioned her to contribute a pastel self-portrait to their Florentine portrait gallery in 1715.
Self-Portrait of the Artist demonstrates the Rococo portrait style that Rosalba Carriera herself helped popularize: a half-figure composition, plain background, lively pose, airy color palette, and sumptuous textures. Carriera markedly departed from convention, however, by refusing to idealize her own physical features. With a subtle smile, her true likeness directly meets the viewer’s gaze, exuding self-confidence. In her hands is a portrait of her younger sister and studio assistant Giovanna, with whom she was very close.
2. Portrait Miniature of Marco Ricci
Before Rosalba Carriera’s art incorporated pastel as a primary medium, Carriera distinguished herself as a painter of miniatures. To support herself as a young artist, Carriera painted and sold portrait miniatures that comprised the lids of small snuff boxes. While decorative objects such as these were not considered high art, they were in high demand among tobacco-using aristocrats, who traveled to Venice in droves. It wasn’t long before Carriera’s prowess and ingenuity made her the most sought-after miniaturist on the international market.
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Commissioned by the Italian painter Marco Ricci, this miniature portrait captures a dynamic and detailed likeness in just a few square centimeters of watercolor on ivory. Carriera herself introduced the use of ivory as a base for portrait miniatures—an especially difficult yet aesthetically rewarding technique that many artists adopted soon after. Carriera meticulously layered thin washes of watercolor onto the non-absorbent ivory surface to create an impressive range of colors and textures. On flesh areas, she painted with an especially light touch to let the luminous ivory base shine through. The resulting portraits were extraordinarily vibrant and lifelike for their diminutive size, attracting further attention to Rosalba Carriera’s art.
3. Carriera’s Miniature Self-Portrait
Another self-portrait, this work exemplifies Rosalba Carriera’s unique mastery of miniature art. It also tells the story of her rising stardom in the early-18th-century art world. Self-Portrait as “Innocence” is an allegorical portrait in which Carriera portrays herself as the virtue of innocence. She intentionally stylized her own features as childlike, which, alongside the symbolic inclusion of a dove, embodies the titular theme. This miniature is actually a copy of an earlier self-portrait, which Carriera submitted to the Academy of St. Luke in Rome as part of her admission into its prestigious ranks. This academy of artists systematically excluded women and derided feminine-coded art forms, making Carriera’s inclusion at age 25 especially remarkable. It indisputably marked her as a professional fine artist and, by extension, helped elevate the status of her specialty mediums.
4. Pastel Portrait of a Woman with Mask
In the early 1700s, pastel became the primary medium in Rosalba Carriera’s art, which mainly consisted of commissioned portraits. Requiring minimal preparation and no drying phases, a pastel portrait could be completed in a single sitting, which accommodated Carriera’s growing clientele of aristocratic tourists. Despite pastel’s relative convenience and casual reputation, it could be difficult to command, especially at a large scale—pastel colors aren’t premixed on a palette but rather blended directly on the paper, and errors can’t be easily covered as with oil painting. But Carriera intrepidly mastered another difficult and disrespected medium—and successfully marketed pastel portraiture as an exciting new genre of art to the upper classes.
Carriera’s seemingly spontaneous pastel strokes imbue this portrait, which depicts an unnamed woman playfully holding a theatrical mask, with refreshing ease and vitality. Rosalba Carriera’s art captivated Rococo-era audiences, who had grown tired of the dark and solemn portraits of generations past.
5. A Young Lady with a Parrot
The commercial success of Rosalba Carreria’s art popularized pastel as an independent medium and Rococo as Europe’s dominant style. From watercolor-on-ivory miniatures to pastel-on-paper portraits, Carriera’s art was increasingly beloved for its softly blended colors, palpable textures, and lighthearted intimacy—all desirable qualities in the blossoming Rococo movement, which originated in France. In Carriera’s expert hand, pastel was especially effective at capturing the effervescent look and feel of Rococo’s flamboyant fashions and powdery cosmetics.
Carriera’s A Young Lady with a Parrot especially exemplifies the Rococo style. The sitter for this pastel portrait, possibly the daughter of an English nobleman, strikes a sweeping pose with flirtatious self-assurance. Perched on her fingers, a parrot mischievously tugs at her plunging neckline to expose her breast. With its seductive theme and aesthetic emphasis on opulent textures and bright colors, this pastel portrait—along with much of Rosalba Carriera’s art—both embodied and influenced the spread of Rococo ideals.
6. Pastel Portrait of Gustavus Hamilton
Rosalba Carriera’s art was in such high demand that the artist opened her own studio in Venice, which welcomed a steady stream of international patrons. Many of Carriera’s clients were visiting Venice as part of the Grand Tour. This coming-of-age journey, undertaken by aristocratic young men, included stops at Europe’s most important historical and cultural sites. Carriera’s portrait studio was considered an essential attraction for Grand Tourists in the 18th century. One such patron, a young Irish viscount named Gustavus Hamilton, commissioned this elegant pastel portrait at Carriera’s studio during his own Grand Tour. Typically relying on a single short sitting, Rosalba Carriera demonstrated an ability to idealize elite subjects like Hamilton without obscuring their natural features and personalities.
7. Louis XV of France as Dauphin
In addition to attracting an audience of Venetian tourists, Rosalba Carriera’s art captivated the courts of Europe, which boasted both political and tastemaking power. While Carriera was content never to leave Venice, she eventually accepted a few exclusive invitations from French, German, and Italian courtiers.
In 1720, Carriera spent several months in Paris, where she mingled with Europe’s most influential artists, intellectuals, and noblemen and asserted her influence on the court’s authoritative aesthetic taste. Most notably, Carriera was commissioned to create a pastel portrait of France’s heir apparent, Louis XV, who was only ten years old. Carriera created a fashionable and dignified portrait that successfully balanced Louis XV’s status as a noble statesman and the reality of his youth. This commission officially established Rosalba Carriera’s art as the court’s preferred blueprint for Rococo-era portraiture.
8. Pastel Portrait Of Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo
Among the most prestigious and prolific patrons of Rosalba Carriera’s art was King Augustus III of the Dresden court, who collected hundreds of pastels from Carriera and other emerging pastel artists. His collection formed the first public exhibition space dedicated to pastel art, which became known as Das Kabinett der Rosalba—demonstrating the inextricable link between pastel art and Carriera’s name.
This groundbreaking collection, which has since remained in Dresden, includes Carriera’s late-career portrait of Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo, a notorious casino proprietor in Venice. Like most of Rosalba Carriera’s art, this portrait is cropped closely with no identifiable background, yet its immaculately rendered foreground details reveal layers of Barbarigo’s personality. Barbarigo’s straightforward gaze and cocked hunting hat showcase her independence and subversive interest in masculine hobbies, while her opulent jewelry and red bow provocatively draw attention to her feminine features.
9. Personification of Africa
Aside from portrait commissions, Rosalba Carriera’s art also explored allegorical subjects. Inspired by other artists’ versions of the same series, Carriera created four pastel portraits that personified the four known continents—Europe, Asia, Africa, and America—as female figures in costume. While most 18th-century depictions of African people were informed solely by offensive stereotypes, Carriera most likely used a live model to convey the allegorical figure of Africa with the same attention to detail and commitment to physical accuracy as her commissioned portraits. However, it is important to note that the depiction of a person of color primarily as an object for aesthetic enjoyment, as well as Africa’s generic “exotic” costume and bouquet of live snakes, reflect the racist history of monolithic, otherizing portrayals of African people and cultures in Western art.
10. The Legacy of Rosalba Carriera’s Art: Self-Portrait as an Old Woman
One of Rosalba Carriera’s final pastel portraits, Self-Portrait as an Old Woman, deviates not only from conventional Rococo portraiture but from the typical characteristics of Carriera’s own oeuvre. Set against an unusually dark background, Carriera’s pale and visibly aged face appears tired and contemplative. Unlike her earlier self-portraits, Carriera does not smile, and her failing eyes do not meet the viewer’s gaze. Not long after completing this portrait, and despite undergoing multiple surgeries, Carriera went completely blind, which forced her to stop working during the last decade of her life. She died in Venice at age 82.
Even after her death, Rosalba Carriera’s art continued to enchant collectors and inspire pastel artists across Europe—until the Rococo style inevitably fell out of favor, and her name consequently fell into obscurity. Today, 350 years after her birth, Carriera is again celebrated as one of the most successful women artists of all time and rightfully credited with catalyzing centuries of innovation in pastel art.