I was lucky enough to visit the Rosalba Carriera: Perfection in Pastel exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden last month. It was a truly stunning show and I wish Carriera were better known. Despite excellent work by her biographer, Angela Oberer, and others, she still feels like the art world’s best kept secret. Yet she was, in fact, one of the most celebrated artists of the 18th century.
Rosalba Carriera was born in 1673, in Venice, the eldest daughter of Andrea Carriera and Alba Foresti. Together with her sisters, Giovanna and Angela Cecilia, she was given a varied education with instruction in embroidery, lacemaking, music, Latin and French. She established her own workshop around 1695 and began instructing her sisters in painting, while also developing a niche as a painter of miniatures. Around 1704 she was becoming interested in pastel painting: a genre, like miniatures, that was associated with women, and therefore unlikely to set her in direct competition with male artists.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Carriera built her business around foreign tourism. Her work was highly prized by both the French and the English, and she quickly gained powerful international patrons. August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, loved her work so much that he collected it, putting it on display in a celebrated pastel cabinet in Dresden known as ‘the Cabinet of Rosalba’. This is the reason why Dresden remains an excellent place to see her work.
Perfection in Pastel lived up to its name with a huge array of works and excellent context, ranging from Canaletto’s views of Venice to examples of the city’s intricate lace-work. The pastels themselves stole the show, but I was also fascinated by the miniatures. Here Carriera pioneered the technique of painting on ivory: yet another example of her importance to the history of European art.