Portrait of a Young Lady
Daughter of the pioneer vedute painter Luca Carlevarijs (1663 – 1730), Marianna was a student of Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) – the first artist that gave the pastel medium its fullest expression – as recorded by Temanza: ‘Marianna è brava Pittrice di ritratti, e fu allieva di Rosalba Carriera’ (Temanza, 1738, p. 57). Unfortunately, there are no extant signed works by Carlevarijs and her activity remains scarcely documented. Yet, the series of four pastel portraits conserved in the Museo del Settecento Veneziano di Ca’ Rezzonico – showing Gerolamo Maria Balbi, his wife Cornelia Foscolo Balbi, and their children Marco and Caterina – form the nucleus of safely attributed works and have allowed scholars to recreate the artist’s stylistic lexicon. While her technique is very similar to that of her master Rosalba, Carlevarijs is recognised for her distinctive treatment of the eyes, which are round, almond-shaped, and slightly elongated (Bottacin, 1996, p. 161). She also tends to give her figures a rounded face with chubby cheeks and a slightly smaller proportioned mouth. The rendering of the eyes in our pastel shows a close affinity with that in the Portrait of Cornelia Foscolo Balbi. Based on the artist’s distinctive treatment of physiognomies, Bernardina Sani has attributed to Carlevarijs the Portrait of an Unknown Man in the Pinacoteca di Brera (Sani, 1990, pp. 100-101). It is interesting to note that the present pastel was lined with pages from a book published in Venice in 1741 ; this allows us to place it slightly earlier than the Ca’ Rezzonico series, dated 1735-40 on the basis of the age of the sitters.
The present pastel, a fine example of Carlevarijs’ technical and artistic accomplishment, portrays a young lady, in three-quarter length, looking to the right. The attention is focused on her fresh, youthful face, beautifully framed by her curly hair. She wears a pair of earrings with pendant pearls, while her hair is embellished with delicate, colourful flowers. Carlevarijs’ technical fluency highlights the vaporous grace of the medium itself; while the grey background, along with the figure’s hair, display the smoothness and subtlety achieved by stumping, the flowers and jewellery create a contrast to this sfumato effect, as they are accentuated by crisp, wet chalk marks. The many possibilities that this powdery medium afforded Carlevarijs are epitomised in the treatment of the fair skin of the face and neck, realised employing only a limited range of tones. While the identity of the sitter remains unknown, the sumptuous earrings and her elaborate satin dress, embellished with delicate lace details, suggest her high social status.
Characterised by a sensitivity to expression, a distinctive palette, and a graceful handling of forms, Carlevarijs’ works highly appealed to the increasingly cosmopolitan clientele passing through La Serenissima. No longer reserved only for finishing touches, the powdery medium established itself as an autonomous genre during the eighteenth century, reaching an unprecedented level of acclaim (Sani, 1991, p. 77). The pastel was appreciated for its brilliance and strength of colour, its subtly illusory naturalism, and its intimacy and suitability for portraits. As Sani points out, pastel portraits also had a much more international character, as they avoided the idiosyncrasies that characterised the different Italian schools: Venetian colorism, Bolognese classicism etc. (Sani, 1991, p. 78) Many other practical factors help explain the pastel’s acceptance as a popular, fashionable medium: it required only a few tools, it was executed quicker, and, unlike oil painting, it needed no drying, making the sittings more agreeable for the subjects. Thanks to their nonyellowing brilliance, the unmistakable coloristic effects which enlivened the face of the sitter, and their reflection of light, pastel portraits were particularly convincing to the eighteenth-century eye (Shelley, 2011, p. 39). Furthermore, their fragility intensified the sense of marvel as the image, realised of coloured dust, would vanish if touched.
We are grateful to Neil Jeffares for independently proposing and confirming the attribution of the present pastel to Marianna Carlevarijs (1703 – post 1750).
Tomasso Brothers Fine Art
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