Before Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) opened the doors of her portrait studio, pastel was largely relegated to the realm of preparatory drawings and sketches. As an emerging artist in 18th-century Venice, Carriera recognized the technical and aesthetic potential of pastel to exemplify the Rococo era, during which her portraiture played a key tastemaking role. She single-handedly elevated pastels to a standalone fine art medium, achieving unprecedented commercial success and international fame during her lifetime.
Today, centuries after her distinguished career, Carriera is still considered one of the most successful woman artists of any era. To celebrate Rosalba Carreira’s 351st birthday this year, read on to discover the fascinating life story and exquisite Rococo portraits of art history’s paramount pastelist.
Rosalba Carriera: Pioneer of Pastel Portraiture
Rosalba Giovanna Carriera was born on January 12, 1673 in Venice. Her father was a lawyer, her mother was a lacemaker, and she was the oldest of three daughters. While few details are known about the first twenty years of Carriera’s life, she was seemingly offered more education than most women of her time, as well as vocational training. Despite their modest background, Carriera and her sisters were well-educated in languages and literature and trained in lacemaking and needlework. Whether Carriera received formal training in portrait painting is unknown. It is assumed that she was likely self-taught, as her family did not have significant means or connections with the Venetian art establishment.
Aside from a few periods of international travel, Rosalba Carriera spent her life and career in Venice. As a cosmopolitan crossroads of European culture and travel, Venice was an ideal place for Carriera to create and sell her art—first miniatures and then the pastel portraits for which she is now primarily remembered.
Why Did Carriera Start Painting Miniatures?
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The earliest known artworks by Rosalba Carriera are portrait miniatures. Deriving from the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, miniatures were already popular in Europe by the time Carriera started painting them in her early twenties. Highly marketable and easily portable, these intimate pocket-sized artworks could decorate everyday objects and be enjoyed privately.
At the turn of the 18th century, the burgeoning Rococo movement and its penchant for diminutive art and objects only increased the demand for portrait miniatures, especially among Europe’s aristocracy. Meanwhile, the decline of the Venetian lace industry likely catalyzed Carriera’s transition from pursuing her mother’s trade to painting portrait miniatures on snuffbox lids for the local tourist market. Because miniatures were considered women’s art, Carriera faced little competition against established male artists, who enjoyed greater privilege and prestige in the art market due to gender inequality.
Delicate yet detailed—and measuring just a few centimeters—Carriera’s portrait miniatures captivated souvenir shoppers in Venice, allowing her to defy the odds and make an independent living as a woman artist. In addition to mastering the art of portrait miniatures, Carriera contributed a groundbreaking innovation that transformed the genre. Instead of using a traditional vellum surface as a base for her miniatures, Carriera pioneered a method of watercolor painting on an ivory surface. Ivory was non-absorbent and thus more difficult to work with, but it facilitated a luminous effect and a desirable matte finish. News of Carriera’s innovation rapidly spread beyond Venice, and miniaturists across Europe adopted the method and remembered her name.
By age 25, Rosalba Carriera was elected into the prestigious Academy of St. Luke in Rome, which elevated her professional reputation. Before she even began using her signature medium of pastel, her portrait miniatures made her famous at home and abroad.
Elevating Pastel From Pastime To Profession
At the height of her success as a portrait miniaturist, Rosalba Carriera began experimenting with pastel, which famously became her specialty. Pastel consists of a pigment and a filler bound together into a stick, which is firm enough to grasp but soft enough to crumble onto a surface when applied. Compared to oil painting, working with pastel requires less preparation and no drying time, as well as fewer tools.
In the early 18th century, pastel was viewed as simpler and more feminine than oil painting, then an esteemed and male-dominated artistic medium. Pastel was meant for casual sketching and preparatory underdrawing, not as a primary medium for finished fine artworks.
The very qualities that prevented pastel from being taken seriously as an independent art medium made it a compelling choice for Rosalba Carriera. With pastel, Carriera faced less market competition, lower startup costs, and the ability to accommodate her target audience of aristocratic travelers. She could quickly produce a high-quality pastel portrait on paper and give the finished product directly to the buyer after a single sitting. This revolutionary approach to professional portraiture allowed Carriera to efficiently meet the growing demand for her work among patrons who sought easily-transportable souvenir artworks to commemorate their time in Venice.
Pastel Portraiture For The Rococo Era
For Rosalba Carriera, specializing in pastel portraiture offered advantages beyond efficiency and marketability. Carriera aptly recognized the potential of pastel to exemplify the Rococo aesthetic, which originated in France and swept 18th-century Europe. In contrast to the intense drama of Baroque art, Rococo art prized soft colors and forms, dazzling light, luxurious textures, and an emphasis on elegance, sumptuousness, and sensuality.
The inherent qualities of pastel made it the perfect medium for Rococo-era portraiture—and Carriera was the first artist to demonstrate it. She mastered the delicate and difficult art of building and blending pigments to render captivating colors, graceful movement, and immaculate details.
Additionally, unlike a varnished oil painting, light does not penetrate pastel. Instead, light reflects off the tiny individual particles of pastel that have been applied to the paper, creating a brilliant luminous effect much like the mirrored surfaces popular in Rococo-era interior design.
Undoubtedly harnessing the attention to detail that she cultivated as a lacemaker and portrait miniaturist, Carriera used pastel to illusionistically reproduce the quintessential elements of Rococo fashion, from shimmering satins and intricate lace to powdered hair and rose-colored rouge. A pastel portrait by Carriera appears effortlessly elegant and decorative and, at the same time, adequately conveys the complex physicality and psychology of its subject. Unlike many artists of her era, Carriera did not overly idealize her sitters, instead preferring a more naturalistic likeness that comes to life on the page.
Soon, Rosalba Carriera’s pastel portraits would dominate local and international art markets. Her work inspired artists and patrons across Europe to fully embrace pastel as not just a legitimate fine art medium but one that defined and shaped the Rococo era.
Carreria’s Venice Studio And The Grand Tour
By the time she was 30 years old, Rosalba Carriera was an internationally renowned pastelist and enjoyed an unusual level of autonomy for an 18th-century woman. For the rest of her life, she was the head of her own household and remained unmarried and childless. Her success empowered her to establish her own studio in Venice, where she was commissioned to create pastel portraits of mostly aristocratic subjects. Carriera’s studio was so famous that it was considered an obligatory stop along Europe’s Grand Tour.
Viewed as a rite of passage for young aristocratic men, the Grand Tour was a long journey across central Europe to visit important artistic and cultural destinations, including Venice. The inclusion of Rosalba Carriera’s studio on the Grand Tour itinerary demonstrates her unparalleled prestige and wide-reaching cultural relevance. With a steady stream of wealthy tourists and other elite patrons, Carriera was content never to leave her studio in Venice. However, she was eventually convinced to embark on a series of international travels to visit the royal courts of Europe.
Carriera And The Royal Courts of Europe
Naturally, Rosalba Carriera’s international celebrity and influence captured the attention of Europe’s wealthiest and most powerful patrons: members of the royal courts of Dresden, Paris, Modena, and Vienna. In 1713, the Crown Prince of Saxony Friedrich August II—later the future King Augustus III of Poland and head of the Saxon court of Dresden—visited Carriera’s Venice studio as part of his own Grand Tour.
After sitting for Carriera, Augustus III went on to collect over 100 of her pastels. This collection later formed the foundation of an extensive Pastell-Kabinett in Dresden, which became the first pastel collection ever to be open to the public. Despite including other pastel artists in this collection, it became known as Das Kabinett der Rosalba. Today, the collection is housed by Dresden’s Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) and remains the world’s largest collection of pastels by Rosalba Carriera.
In 1720, Carriera was invited to Paris, where she spent an exciting year exploring the city’s art collections, interacting with French Rococo artists, and creating pastel portraits of Parisian nobles, including King Louis XV as a young boy. That year, Carriera also became the first non-French woman to be admitted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris.
After returning to Italy, Carriera also worked for the Duke of Modena, Rinaldo d’Este. Carriera’s final international journey took place in 1730 when she accepted an invitation to visit the Habsburg court in Vienna. There, she gained the support and patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Empress Wilhelmine Amalie, further cementing her status as the most successful woman artist of her time.
Rosalba Carreria’s Final Years And Artistic Legacy
The final decade of Rosalba Carriea’s life was marked by her diminishing eyesight, which ultimately impacted her ability to work as an artist. In 1757, she died at age 84 and was buried in Venice’s Church of San Vio, leaving behind an extremely large estate and an indelible international legacy. For a century after her first foray into pastel, Carriera remained a key influence on European artists. However, as the Rococo style fell out of favor, Carriera’s name faded into obscurity. The systematic exclusion of women from the traditional art historical canon also contributed to her erasure during the 19th century, as did the fragility and light sensitivity of her pastel-on-paper works, which are rarely exhibited to avoid damage.
Fortunately, in time for the 351st anniversary of her birth, Rosalba Carriera’s reputation as one of the most successful and influential women artists of all time is actively being restored. Thanks to the ongoing work of art historians, museums, and contemporary artists, the 18th-century story of Carriera’s transformation of an underestimated artistic medium into incomparable commercial success and historic creative influence continues to resonate and inspire today.