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Get Your Money, Girl: Meet Rosalba Carriera, The First Woman Artist Millionaire You've Never Heard of

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Get Your Money, Girl: Meet Rosalba Carriera, The First Woman Artist Millionaire You've Never Heard of
Self Portrait v 1746 via WGA

Visual art is inextricable from fashion. Trends come and go, movements wax and wane, and history buries its missteps so seamlessly that the "canon" can feel stone-set. What makes the cut for inclusion in “greatness” is notable; big, brash masterpieces by white guys have long reigned as the standard in creative significance, but beyond identity, style—self-serious, materially undaunted—defines taste for centuries to come. Some moments in time simply don’t age well, however. Viewers in 2019 love Surrealism, for instance, even though a lot of the original stuff was kind of cheesy (don’t @ me), but Late Baroque or Rococo aesthetics never aged particularly well, for a number of perfectly good reasons, chief of which is the period’s association with tacky, reckless pre-revolutionary opulence. Not that Rococo hasn’t made frequent, storied appearances in the intervening years, (sigh... Jeff Koons) but ultimately, there’s something about the cadence of frills and fluff that leaves contemporary eyes a little dry. This is particularly true of 18th century pastel portraiture, which involved more powdered wigs than, uh, compositional sophistication.

Portrait of a Lady with a Parrot, Date Unknown via Staatliche Gemaldegalerie of Dresden

Pastel portraiture may now be largely dismissed as syrupy and saccharine, but it enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity during the early 1700s due to a confluence of serendipitous economic and artistic factors. A prosperous French merchant class emerged and began to intermingle with the aristocracy, most of whom were migrating from Versailles to stylish Parisian hotels particuliers, extravagant private urban homes with significantly less wallspace than their palatial forerunners. A renewed interest in modestly scaled decor intersected with the availability of cast-plate glass, which could protect the powdery surface of pastel pieces and facilitate their display in a similar language to painting, inflating their prestige. Due to their diffuse, binder-light particle composition, powder pastels could emit a brilliant, skin-like glow without the finicky time-chew required by oil paint. Pastels beat out oil in terms of overhead cost and portability, too, just the sort of efficacious innovation that squared with the Enlightenment-era appetite for theoretical and commercial advancement. In a visual environment divided between formerly hierarchical colore and disegno designations, pastel combined with immediacy of drawing with painting’s full-bodied splendor, pushing the medium out from the shadows of preparatory sketches into the spotlight.

 A Muse, 1720, via the J. Paul Getty Museum

Interestingly, the major progenitor of this hugely profitable craze was a working class, single woman from Venice who didn’t pick up a stick of chalk until she was 30 years old. Even after Rococo fell out of style in her later years, Rosalba Carriera’s signature method of conveying reflective, lush surface in two dimensions became the gold standard across media for centuries to come, and she is still heralded one of the most monetarily successful women artists of all time. So, why haven’t we heard of her? Given the era, women didn’t have a lot of room to do much of, well, anything, but gauzy Rococo expression, in tandem with pastel’s humble origins, provided a limited space for hyper-feminine, aristocratic artisanship that bypassed the macho pomposity of Carriera’s contemporaries. The same lack of categorical gravitas that stifled her legacy allowed her star to soar, a paradox that similarly affected artists like Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun and Catherine Read. In many ways, her comparative erasure from art historical guardianship makes sense; she was a woman making necessarily ephemeral, illustrative work for the amusement of historically defamed imperialists. Still, Carriera’s contributions are unexpected, multifold, and woefully under-reported, warranting a deeper dive into her personal narrative.

A Portrait of Gusatvus Hamilton, 2nd Viscount Boyne, 1730 via the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Born in 1673, Rosalba Carriera started her artistic tenure as a lace pattern maker under her mother’s tutelage. As that industry declined, Carriera taught herself how to paint, making miniatures for snuff-box lids, then a highly sought-after luxury item, as the primary means of income for her and her family. Fascinatingly, she was the first artist on record to pioneer the shift from vellum to ivory as a substrate, effectively adding another layer of exorbitance to this over-the-top trade. Over time, she transferred her talents into the realm of pastel, where she quickly established a rabid following. By the early 1700s, nobles of all stripes were clamoring to sit for her, and in 1704, just one year after her entree to the medium, Carriera was inducted into the Roman Accademia Di San Luca, the first woman and pastel artist to receive the honor. Her early work bore witness to depictions of Maximilian II of Bavaria, Frederick IV of Denmark, and a suite of beautiful Venetian court ladies, the most iconic example of her dreamy, idealized oeuvre. In 1721, she moved from Italy to Paris, and soon became a friend and guest of esteemed collector Pierre Crozat, whose patronage only further increased her visibility amongst his the French business class.  Within five years, Carriera was elected a member of the Academy by acclamation, portraying every major member of the French royal network, including the King and Regent. After making a splash in France, she traveled to Austria, where Holy Emperor Charles VI became her benefactor, eventually amassing upwards of 150 of her pastels. George III of England was also a frequent collector of her pieces, and is credited with helping her stylistic influence to expand in Britain.

Not only was Carriera the undisputed Godmother of pastel, she also revolutionized artistic technology by binding powder pastel, formerly utilized either with brushes or in cumbersome lumps, into streamlined, uniform sticks, expediting the development of a wider range of prepared colors. She also was one of the first artists to champion the use of wet pastel to create quick, luminous layers, a technique that is still in circulation today. All this invention and recognition afforded her a rather fabulous lifestyle, filled with furs, jewels, and access to some of the most rarified courts in the world. By all accounts, Carriera was today's equivalent of a multimillionaire, quite a feat for an unmarried, formerly destitute woman with no formal training in any of her ventures. 

 Antoine Watteau, 1721, via The Athenaeum

Unfortunately, after her sister and confidante Giovanna died in 1738, Carriera spiraled into an inescapable depression, slowing her output to a relative trickle. This predicament was further exacerbated by her sudden loss of vision. Two unsuccessful cataract surgeries left her permanently blind, forcing her to spend the last years of her life confined to a small house in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, where she died at the age of 84 in 1757. In a miserable turn of events, Carriera died essentially penniless and alone, having outlived her family and blown most of her nestegg on the very operations that left her unable to see. Her difficult end mirrored a cultural shift away from the extravagance of Rococo towards more austere delineation between fine art and ornament, thus permitting her high-flying, lucrative star to fade all the more quickly into obscurity. We are living through a similarly gilded age, defined by economic inequality, vapid, ostentatious displays of wealth, and the rise of fast, loud, easy art objects designed to be churned out and disseminated almost exclusively for the pleasure of wealthy buyers.

Which contemporary artists will be deemed worthy of art historical attention, and who will be discarded by the whims of fashion? Only time will tell.

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