Rosalba Carriera: Story of the Forgotten Italian Portraitist

Rosalba Carriera is one of the artists from Italy who gained reputation for her unique works mostly portraits. Here’s her story.

Rosalba Carriera

Last weekend, while reading byzantine art history, I profoundly reflected that our past has allowed us to witness the enchantress of numerous artworks from different artists. From Byzantium to Antiquity to Medieval art to post-impressionist art, we adore the different ways of artistry. There is no prospect seeming iffy over why we are still so obsessed with the beauty of the Mona Lisa, the perfection of Adam by Michelangelo, the extremeness in Artemisia’s Judith or the sensual divinity in the Madonnas by Peter Paul Rubens and other artists. Even with all the attention these famous paintings have received, a thousand of artworks still remain unknown to us, unfortunately. So, for the series of exploring the hidden treasures of the art world, I intend to discuss every possible artist with you through their short stories and artworks, so the next time you see their piece of art in a museum, you’ll be able to thank me instantly. Today, we have an inspiring story of a seventeenth-century artist, Rosalba Carriera, who enjoyed success with her talent and stood apart among the women artists over the stage of Europe.

If Rosalba had never shown her talent and skills, the world would never know what a woman artist could achieve. She was a peek of inspiration for all those who missed seeing the fame and patronage of the aristocrats of leading courts of Europe. As the first female to be part of the French Academy of Fine Arts, she is often referred to as the “pastel queen“. Let us look at her life and her numerous artworks in this article.

Artist Abstract: Rosalba Carriera.

Rosalba Carriera Self Portrait
Self-Portrait, Rosalba Giovanna Carriera | Source: Royal Collection Trust

Rosalba, a Venetian artist, was the most successful woman artist of her day. Her portraits and allegories were spread and admired throughout Europe, and several members of the aristocracy and Royalty, including the King of Denmark, Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm and Maximilian II of Bavaria, crazily waited in a queue outside her studio for their portraits. Rosalba was so perfect with her colourful artworks that August II of Saxony acquired more than 150 artworks from her gallery. One of the consequential approaches of her portraits was that Rosalba always depicted her subjects as they wanted. Whether to confront the portrayal image as coquettish, reserved, vain, friendly, dignified or charming, she had every way to showcase her patrons as they wanted. She remained popular till the end of the nineteen century.

Birth1673, Venice
Death1757, Venice
StyleMiniature Painting, Pastel Portraiture
MediumPastel on paper mounted on canvas

Discussing the Life of the Artist.

Born in a humble family in Venice, possibly in 1673, her father was a clerk, and her mother a lace maker. Rosalba started her career by assisting her mother in her job as a lacemaker. But after a while, when the interest in lace fell, and industry began to wind up in this section, she found miniature painting as a new means to secure her family financially. Initially, she started doing miniature paintings for cigarette boxes and jewellery boxes and was the first artist to make use of ivory instead of regular parchment for the purpose. 

As a miniature painter, Rosalba Carriera had great skill to render details and apply paint with varied thicknesses. As well as making her paintings different, her active brushwork revolutionized miniature painting. 

The majority of her work by the 1700s was miniatures, and she began painting pastel portraits in 1703. In 1704, the Roman Academy of San Luca proclaimed her the “Accademico di Merito“, a preserved title for non-Roman artists.

During the 1721s, Rosalba left Venice and went to Paris as her pastel portraits were highly in demand. The great art collector and lover of art, Pierre Crozat, hosted her there. In the short period spent in Paris, she did much in the Rococo style, which was also a cause of her popularity. She painted Watteau, the whole inner circle of the King and regent. During this short period in Paris, she contributed to the formation of new aristocrats’ tastes in the court and Parisino. 

Portrait of Antoine Watteau Rosalba Carriera paintings
Portrait of Antoine Watteau by Rosalba Carriera | Source: Rosalba Carriera, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite her popularity and achievement of great triumph there, she returned to her home in the Grand Canal of Venice in 1721.

In her later life, we know from her biographical notes that she travelled for a long duration to the royal court in Vienna and Austria. During that time, Holy Emperor Carl VI became her benefactor and supported her art. He bought at least 150 of her pastels. Fortunately, Rosalba enjoyed great success in her career. 

But in 1738, after her loving sister Giovanna died 1738, she came into depression, which affected her art greatly. She even surpassed her entire family, and it was so unfortunate that during her lonely days, accompanied by no one, she spent her last years in a small house in Dorsoduro in Venice. She died when she was 84. Though her ending life was miserable, she was the first female artist to start a new style in the artistic community.

Self Portrait of Rosalba Carriera holding a portrait of her sister Giovanna
Self Portrait of Rosalba Carriera holding a portrait of her sister Giovanna | Source: Web Gallery of Art

The Story Behind Artworks of the Rosalba’s Famous Pastels.

Learning about Rosalba Carriera’s paintings, let us start with her miniature works. For instance, Venus and Cupid were among the very first miniature paintings where she combined the technique of shadows with tiny dots to model the figures. Further, Rosalba Carriera uses a thicker, more active impasto on the drapery that partially covers Venus.

Venus and Cupid Rosalba Carriera
Venus and Cupid by Rosalba Carriera | Source: SMK Open

Now, there was a gradual shift of Rosalba paintings from miniature to pastel portraits. It is because of the fact that despite miniaturization requiring a particularly precise technical technique, this kind of painting has suffered from a low status in the history of art. Also, since they are smaller, they were replaced by large panel paintings. But in the life of Rosalba, the initial success came from the medium of miniature painting.

After the craze of these paintings dropped, Rosalba went into pastel portraits as her speciality. Those coloured chalks, known as pastels, were less explored during that time, and Rosalba used them to create natural textures in an unprecedented way. 

One of her first portraits was of the young French King, Louis XV. She furiously painted him in a highly-detailed manner and looked almost oil-paint-like treatment combined with more spontaneous technique in jacket, cravat and hair. You can actually see the individual chalk marks in these sections. 

Portrait of King Louis XV by Rosalba Carriera
Portrait of King Louis XV by Rosalba Carriera | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

As she made numerous portraits and they came in demand, in recognition of her achievement, she also became a member of the French Academy- a remarkable honour for any artist. Her talents were truly top-notch by the international clientele. The aristocrats from England demanded her portraits, and even the King of Denmark, including several upper classes, was among her patrons.

There are several other portraits by the artist, showing a warm- detailed image with a refined colour sense. She often used bright and fresh colours for brilliant and luminous feet. And due to these traits in her compositions, her style often relates to that of Venetian contemporary, Tiepolo. Her choice and freedom of colours not only made her famous but also injected a new inspiration into the Rococo style. 

In the Portrait of Felicita Sartoni in Turkish Dress, Rosalba showed Felicita, one of her pupils, in a lighter illuminance through shining and gleaming skin tone and softer accents of her facial features. The dark-coloured blue dress with lighter and comforting brushstrokes goes well with the subject over the dark background.

Portrait of Felicita Sartoni in Turkish Dress Rosalba Carriera
Portrait of Felicita Sartoni in Turkish Dress by Rosalba Carriera | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Her style of art emphasizes the use of pastel colours with spontaneous brushes, giving surface tonality and a charming approach to the subject. When you see her portraits, you will find that she used dancing lights and elegance in her composition. She also pulled white chalk in combination with the darker tones to capture a shiny texture of lace and satin in her subjects. Her way of blending facial features and softness in the fluffy hair of her portraits makes her so breathtaking.

Gustavus Hamilton Portrait Rosalba Carriera paintings
Portrait of Gustavus Hamilton by Rosalba Carriera | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because Rosalba chose pastel as her medium, she was able to flatter her models without pretentiously idealizing them- which may explain her success despite the fact that she lacked artistic brilliance. It was when pastel’s gentle appeal combined with its flattering softness that she created her best works. In this portrait of a young girl, the mother-of-pearl flesh tone is rendered in classic pastel hues of blue, pink, and pale white, and the lack of depth in colour perfectly captures the childlike look of the face. A pastel painting does not lend itself to portraying shadows and is best suited to depicting a carefree youth without shadows. The technique perfectly matches the softness of this charming face. Besides the compatibility of subject matter and medium, Carriera’s achievement lies in her ability to subordinate the sitter’s facial expression to the mood of the picture without losing his or her individuality. An almost imperceptible smile graces the girl’s lips as she peers at us with an almost lustreless gaze. The pastel is free from any kind of excitement, abruptness, or suddenness that might contradict it.

Even though Rococo’s art lasted not too long, she had a strong influence on many artists like Catherina Read, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Despite her no background in the artistic community, Rosalba perfectly fitted into the innovation of art. 

Final Words.

Rococo pastels have been a characteristic feature of the Rococo and later Baroque periods. And the inventor of this style remains Rosalba Carriera. We saw there are three aspects of her art and the genesis of her style, firstly her amateur approach, second her training in her home town in Venice from Giovanni Antonio Lazzaro and her use of coloured chalks for drawing. Becoming Europe’s most sought-after portraitist, Rosalba represented a fashionable taste. While she drew with coloured chalks of bound pigments on vellum or coloured paper, she blurred the counters, easing up the corrections and getting the best clean working technique that required no palette. The smaller details, which she learnt during the miniature painting, let her give attention to the smallest and minutest detail in her artwork, which excelled in her paintings. Her compassion in portraits, rigidity in colours, and soft details let her paint what other artists never portrayed.


1. The Life and Work of Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757): The Queen of Pastel: 24 (Visual and Material Culture, 1300-1700) by Dr. Angela Oberer.

2. Rosalba Carriera: Catalogue Raisonne by Bernardina Sani.

3. Rococo by Eva Gesine Baur (Author), Ingo F. Walther (Editor).

Frequently Asked Questions.

What was Rosalba Carriera known for?

Rosalba Carriera was known for her choice of colours and use of pastels in the Rococo style. In addition to her pastel portraitures, she was the first non-french woman to be elected to the French Academy of arts, which in history nobody attained after her for 37 years.

What kind of painter was Rosalba Carriera?

She was a Venetian Pastel Portraitist and miniature painter. Initially, Rosalba began her career with miniature painting, but after it declined, she gradually shifted to pastel portraitures. Her way of employing the pastels was different from any other artist.

What is the typical subject of the Rosalba painting?

The typical subject of Rosalba Carriera paintings was the portraits. She enriched her figures with warm colours, a shiny appearance, and an elegant and charming approach.


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