Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. I noticed that I had a pretty big hole in the chronology of artists that I wanted to talk about, so I went looking for some more people, because I didn’t think there was any good reason to assume that there were no women portrait painters between 1665 (death of Elisabetta Sirani [LINK]) and 1741 (birth of Angelica Kauffman, she’ll be part of a future post), and well, I found them. I also found someone earlier who I really wish I’d included at the start of this series.
Caterina van Hemessen 1528-c.1527
Caterina was a Flemish painter who was working a little bit earlier than Sophonisba, and I want to mention her portrait because she’s credited with the first verified* self portrait of anyone of any gender sitting at an easel in the standard badass artist pose. She makes it easy for us by stating her name and age (twenty, Sophonisba would have been sixteen at the time) on the canvas in the corner. So, the lesson here is do not trust claims that someone is totally definitely for certain the first person who did X.
Anyways, jumping back to the 17th century now with:
Rosalba was a verrrrrry successful pastel** portrait artist from Venice, with a career that would have been impressive for anyone regardless of gender. I really cannot overstate how successful she was in her lifetime: everyone who was anyone in Europe was clamoring to have their portrait painted by her, and she is credited with introducing the medium of pastel painting to France pretty much single-handedly. She did hundreds of paintings over the course of her lifetime, many with the help of her sister who would save Rosalba time by doing the fiddly bits such as filling in the background.
Unfortunately, in her seventies Rosalba went blind. She underwent an unsuccessful cataract operation (and ok, the whole idea of eye operations freaks me out when 2014 level technology is being used, much less whatever was available in 1750) and spent the last few years of her life unable to work.
I’ve been trying to just pick one portrait per artist to talk about, because some people did several and some people made only one and it seemed more fair (assume this is going out the window from now on, because I am weak willed). That said, I wanted to include the below portrait by Rosalba because you can really see the details of the pastel work and that it’s definitely not an oil painting. Also, I just think it’s a nicely done piece of art that isn’t very well known, and wanted to share.
Note that this was painted about thirty years after the first self-portrait. While she does look older, I think it’s safe to say that she’s not going for harsh realism. Which is not at all surprising, given that her profession was portrait painter to the wealthy–the wealthy*** want to look good and might not pay for an unflinchingly honest painting.
**Part of what determines what survives over the years is how sturdy the substrate is/how well bonded the pigment is to said substrate. Frescoes are GREAT for longevity, because you’re adding the pigment to the actual plaster that’s making up the surface of the wall, so as long you don’t get too creative with your pigment formulas and the building itself stays standing, you’re probably good for a few hundred years at least. Paintings on some sort of board or primed canvas are also reasonably sturdy, but paper is delicate. I’m rather impressed that so much of Rosalba’s work seems to have survived the years.
***Well really this is everyone. I have all the respect in the world for professional portrait painters, because you have to not just make them look like themselves, but do so while avoiding stirring up any issues that the patron has with their appearance. It can be a bit tricky. After I got into an argument with my own mother about what her nose looked like, I decided this was not the career path for me.
SOURCES AND ADDITIONAL INFO:
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.