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Transcript of Episode 3: In Love with the Rococo

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Every once in a while, you may walk into a museum, or even be scrolling through social media, and suddenly happen upon a work of art that is strikingly beautiful but that you’ve never seen before, or whose maker you’ve never heard of. More likely than not, there’s somebody whose entire scholarly career is centered around that work of art you’ve never heard of, whose days are filled with digging up as much as humanly possible surrounding that work and its maker. Plenty of academics end up in corners of scholarship that are totally unknown to the general population. Plenty of academics breathe a heavy sigh, internally or externally, when asked the question “so what exactly do you study?” Since I first fell in love with the 18th century in undergrad, I’ve been one of those.

The 18th century is a period in art history that not many people know very much about. When people asked me what I studied in graduate school, I got a lot of blank looks when I responded “18th century art.” I’d rattle off the names of as many prominent artists of the period as I could think of—Turner, David, Boucher, Constable, Fragonard, Reynolds, Hogarth—until I ran out of any that a non-art historian might reasonably know about. Save for some very rare circumstances, that list would usually be met with only a shrug. I was that academic, studying something obscure and irrelevant to the lives of normal humans.

I knew as soon as I started this podcast that I wanted to address some works from my favorite period in European art history, but rather than pick one of the big works of the period to deal with, I thought I’d go for a deeper cut, a work from an artist I enjoy largely because I find her work exceedingly beautiful and enjoyable to look at. Rosalba Carriera’s Young Lady with A Parrot[1], from 1730, is a portrait done in pastel on paper, a notoriously delicate material because it’s just soft, powdery chalk laid on paper, usually with nothing to fix it to the surface. Thus, in addition to being a work by a woman, a category of artist whose work can sometimes be erased, disguised, or poorly preserved, it is also in a medium that is difficult to preserve. But why is that so? Why don’t we hear about more women artists when we learn about art in general? We’re going to talk about all that gender business in this episode, plus begin to explore what we think we know about the eighteenth century.

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A description of Rosalba Carriera’s Young Lady with a Parrot, 1730:

A young woman is depicted from the waist up. She is turned to face the viewer’s right in a three-quarter view. Her skin is pale, her cheeks are rosy, and her lips are red. Her hair has a reddish tint, but it is not bright. Her eyes are gray, her features are delicate, and she wears a blue dress with pink ribbon and white lace trim.  A small blue parrot is perched on her left hand, and it tugs the bodice of her dress open with its beak. The young woman is looking at the viewer with a calm smile. Her open dress exposes the center of her pale chest and the swells of her breasts, nearly revealing  her right nipple. The young woman wears a string of pearls wound around her neck, falling down the center of her bared chest, and secured to her bodice on her right side with a pink bow. In her hair, which cascades over her shoulder and partway down her back in fluffy curls, she wears a delicate strand of pearls and other gems, a pink bow on top of her head, and a posy of pink and white flowers next to her right ear. She is depicted in front of a background made up of soft washes of brown and gray.

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Rosalba Carriera was born in Venice, Italy around 1673, and while there isn’t a lot of information about her early life, we know her father was a government employee in Venice, and her mother was an embroiderer, which likely contributed to Rosalba herself beginning her creative career as a lacemaker.[2] She and her sisters had a classical education and all grew up to be involved in the arts, whether primarily by marriage, as in the case of Angela, as an artist in her own right, like Rosalba, or as an artist’s assistant, like Giovanna, who worked with Rosalba for a good portion of her career.[3] Rosalba Carriera first gained notoriety as a painter of miniatures—small paintings, usually incorporated into decorative objects like snuffboxes, and, in Carriera’s case, done on pieces of ivory. Why paint on ivory and not on wood or canvas? Well, for one thing, Venice was particularly unsuited to painting on wood because the city is on water, and water plus wood can equal warping and mold. As a result, Venetians were real big on working on canvas from at least the Renaissance period onward. Also, ivory is really expensive, so it was an easy way to justify charging higher prices for one’s work. Theoretically, it might have been possible for Carriera to be a canvas painter, but she might not have been a very successful one, as there were fairly strict societal limits on what sorts of creative activity women could engage in in the eighteenth century. To learn to work on canvas, an artist would have to attend an academy or undergo an apprenticeship, and both of those things would have entailed various degrees of physical activity, hanging out with a ton of dudes, and drawing from nude models, none of which were things that women were really supposed to do. As a result, Carriera and other female artists at this time were restricted to a limited number of genres of painting, usually those that didn’t require being out in public a lot or looking at naked folks, and a limited number of media, usually those that were least messy or labor-intensive. Miniatures were delicate and small-scale, and didn’t require much working from reference, which made them very appropriate for women to undertake.

Despite being restricted in her choice of medium and genre, Carriera was nevertheless a pretty popular artist even before she branched out from miniatures to pastels. Musicologist Daniel Heartz, writing on Carriera’s portraits of opera singers, notes that even before 1700, when Carriera was in her mid-twenties, she had clients for miniatures as far away as Paris, communicating with them by letter.[4] Smaller-scale works were quite popular during this period, particularly so with the ascendance in the early 1700s of a style known as rococo, which focused on the delicate, the decorative, and the light and airy. You may not know the word rococo, but you’ve probably seen it before in movies about the eighteenth century—think Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, or Amadeus, or the Emma Watson version of Beauty and the Beast. There’s lots of flying babies and ornamental swirls and things that seem to be there just because they look pretty, not to mention tons of sexual innuendo. That’s the nature of the movement that Carriera was a part of and was able to profit from. Art historian Christopher M.S. Johns frames Carriera’s early career in miniatures as a lucrative convergence of aristocratic demand and Carriera’s own innovations and talent, in this excerpt from his essay on Carriera’s relationship to the Roman Academy of Art:

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While miniature painting has a long-standing association with the art of jewelry design and an overt relationship with courtly rituals of the exchange of amorous tokens adorned with images of the beloved, it was Carriera who first popularized them as an independent form of portraiture. Moreover, she was the first eighteenth-century painter to explore allegorical themes in the medium in a sustained way. The majority of Carriera’s portrait miniatures are painted either in tempera or gouache on an ivory ground. In addition to increasing the monetary value of the object without embellishing and encumbering the image with jewels, gems and precious metals (ivory was quite expensive), it also enhanced their delicacy and luminosity, since ivory mellows with age and does not absorb pigment…A heightened sense of delicacy was also achieved by Carriera’s almost exclusive use of such pastel colors as pale blue and gray, rose pink and various subtle shades of white. In sum, intimate scale, pastel colors, financial value and visual immediacy all combine in Carriera’s miniatures to create objects that were avidly collected by the European elite.[5]

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It was a miniature painting on ivory, Allegory of Innocence, that got Carriera accepted as the first professional female member of Rome’s Accademia di San Luca in 1705.[6] And it was miniature painting that made Carriera a financial success—a little math based on some old approximate values of Venetian zecchini (that’s a coin, not a type of squash) reveals that the fifty-zecchini sum that Carriera charged for ivory miniatures in 1705 is approximately equivalent to over $1400 U.S. Dollars today.[7] According to Johns, that was more expensive than most large-scale canvases and frescoes at the time.[8]

Diversifying her work by breaking into pastels was just as financially advantageous as creating miniatures on expensive ivory, and also very convenient given the way in which Carriera seems to have conducted business. Pastels, I.e. Colored chalks applied to paper, either on their own or wet for finer detail, were very easy to transport, and as Carriera did a good bit of traveling in her lifetime, from Venice to Paris to Austrian and Hungarian courts, while also dealing with clientele all over Europe, it would have made a lot of sense for her to bring paper and pastels with her rather than boxes full of expensive ivory to paint on. Pastel works were quicker to complete and larger in scale than miniatures, but, as Johns points out, they were still considered “feminine,” and unlike ivory miniatures they didn’t have an association with practical objects like snuffboxes.[9] They were closer to “fine” art than to “applied” art, and that gave them greater gravitas than ivory miniatures. Part of Carriera’s success was not only in executing works that had widespread appeal, but also in the fact that she didn’t overstep the boundaries of women’s societally prescribed roles. She worked in feminine media, and seems to have made a conscious choice to avoid taking on riskier subjects, such as a commission of a nude Venus from her English friend Christian Cole in 1704[10]. She also remained single her whole life, allowing her to continue her work without having to devote time to the obligations of marriage or assisting an artist husband with his own work, which many female artists, including Rosalba’s sister Angela, did at the time.[11]

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Given the apparent care that Carriera took to maintain her image and reputation, Young Lady with a Parrot seems to lean a bit on the saucy side. The young lady’s bodice is open dangerously wide, a fact that she doesn’t seem to care much about. Bernardina Sani, an art historian who literally wrote the book on Rosalba Carriera (though unfortunately she wrote it in Italian and since I’m, like, the only art historian alive who hasn’t learned Italian I can’t read it) also attributes some cheeky meaning to the little blue parrot causing the wardrobe malfunction:

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In the [Art Institute of] Chicago pastel, the relationship between the young woman and the bird can be explained as participating in the Rococo taste for depicting small and exotic animals, but greater emphasis should be placed on the pastel’s allegorical content…[Painters] relied on the vast literary production on allegorical themes, emblems, and iconologies generated during the renaissance and widely distributed during the Baroque period. The principal text to which they turned was Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (first published in 1593)…Ripa is not very helpful in determining the meaning of the parrot and its gesture in the Chicago pastel; he discussed this bird as a symbol of docility because he considered its ability to repeat human words to be submissive. However, in Rosalba’s work, the parrot’s gesture, which reveals the woman’s breast, is anything but passive and confers on the piece a strongly immodest note. Thus, the parrot in this painting may have a significance closer to that which Ripa attributed to the sparrow, a symbol of lust.[12]

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Sani continues by questioning why a woman of this period would allow herself to be depicted with what is essentially an allusion to the loss of virginity, and instead proposes that there is an allusion here to the work of the ancient Roman poet Catullus, who Carriera would have known from her classical education, and who wrote about a woman named Lesbia playing with a sparrow:

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Sparrow, my girl’s pet,

With whom she is accustomed to play,

Whom she holds to her breast,

To whom, seeking, she extends her finger tip

And provokes to sharp bites.[13]

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Sani notes that sensuality and play were a popular pairing in the eighteenth century—think of French nobles chasing one another around the gardens of Versailles—and she makes a strong case for this classical reference being the basis of Carriera’s painting. It’s still a bit unclear, however, who precisely the subject was and who this work was intended for. The young woman may have been English, as Carriera, like many Italian artists, often took commissions from English nobility on their Grand Tour of Europe, and Sani notes that she looks like one of the daughters of Lord Manchester. But why would an English noblewoman want to be portrayed in such a way? Is it intended to be an allegory, like many of Carriera’s other works? If so, what is it an allegory of? Who would want such a picture from a female artist? Would this be for private or public display? Scholarly ability to answer these specific questions, given how speculative many of them are, is limited. But we can conclude that Young Lady with a Parrot provokes quite a bit of confusion, in that it highlights a disconnect between what we know about Carriera and her body of work and the visual evidence of a really quite sexy image.

When the 18th century, particularly its early rococo phase, is portrayed in popular culture now, it is often associated with excess, vanity, and sexual freedom. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a prime example of this—there’s an entire montage in the middle of the film dedicated to Marie Antoinette’s many shoes, plates upon plates of tiny cakes, increasingly high hairdos, and endless parties. The 2017 live action version of Beauty and the Beast portrayed pre-transformation Beast presiding over a luxurious rococo court, dressed to the nines complete with heavy makeup. His rococo lifestyle is selfish and image-obsessed, and it leads to his downfall. Dangerous Liaisons, which is based on a play that also served as the basis for the movie Cruel Intentions, is likewise pretty deeply entrenched in a rococo aesthetic, chronicling the destructive sex-obsessed behavior of the 18th century French aristocracy. Fashion takes a similarly judgmental approach when it resurrects the rococo, which it does often, because even though it’s become practically synonymous with moral decay, it’s also very hashtag-aesthetic. Christian Dior played off the huge skirts and overwhelming ornamentation of the period for fall and winter of 2007, and Vivienne Westwood has been drawing inspiration from the 18th century for years, twisting it so the excess becomes rebellious rather than a symbol of an aristocratic establishment. Despite Westwood’s attempts to flip the script, the beauty and gratuitous decoration of the rococo is sort of a modern shorthand for vanity at the expense of good morals, a type of beauty that flourishes when we cast judgment and insight aside in favor of “oooh pretty shiny pink things.” And at first glance, Young Lady with a Parrot seems to confirm that characterization. But when we consider Carriera’s apparent dedication to maintaining a modest, proper public image, it’s hard to reconcile a view of the pastel as emblematic of the Sexy Eighteenth Century with Carriera’s personal life or her larger body of work. Certainly, Carriera must have been more complex than the reputation she built, and there’s no reason why she wouldn’t have been interested in depicting more sensual subjects on a personal level, but from what we know about the precarious position of women artists in general for most of Western art history, it doesn’t seem as though it would have necessarily been a wise choice to execute this type of work.

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Having now heard all this about Carriera and the Young Lady with a Parrot, you might be thinking: if Carriera was so popular and successful, how come I’ve never heard of her? This leads us to one of the most important essays in art history: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin, an art historian who passed away in October of last year.[14] Published in 1971, Nochlin’s essay asks us to rethink the question she poses in her title, and the way in which we approach re-integrating women into historical narratives from which they have been omitted or removed. Nochlin primarily discusses nineteenth-century artists like Rosa Bonheur and Berthe Morisot, as modernism was her subfield, but most of the issues she discusses can be applied to the entirety of the Western art historical narrative. A major part of Nochlin’s argument is exemplified by the following excerpt, which addresses how one might even begin to answer the question “Why have there been no great women artists?”:

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The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: I.e., to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to ‘re-discover’ forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think—in other words, to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his very own neglected or minor master. Such attempts, whether undertaken from a feminist point of view, like the ambitious article on women artists which appeared in the 1858 Westminster Review, or more recent scholarly studies on such artists as Angelica Kauffmann and Artemisia Gentileschi, are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women’s achievement and of art history generally. But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications. Another attempt to answer the question involves shifting the ground slightly and asserting, as some contemporary feminists do, that there is a different kind of ‘greatness’ for women’s art than for men’s, thereby postulating the existence of a distinctive and recognizable feminine style, different both in its formal and expressive qualities and based on the special character of women’s situation and experience.[15]

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Nochlin continues the thread of that second point by acknowledging that there’s nothing specifically “feminine” that seems to unite women artists’ work. Any way one goes about it, addressing the question of why there are “no great women artists” is flawed because the question itself is flawed. It’s not even clear what prerequisites make up “greatness” in an artist—is it a proliferation of legends about their life? Is it status as a youthful prodigy? Is it financial success or social prominence? There seem to be no set criteria for determining the greatness of an artist. We just seem to have accepted that a certain group of them are great, because history books kept repeating it so often. The term “great” appears to be largely arbitrary, and as Nochlin notes, art historians frequently make the case for one artist or another being “great,” or a “master” of a very specific subgenre of art, or “the best of their generation.” The more one investigates why and how artists are determined to be “great,” the more suspect their crowning as such becomes. Some of the reasoning is based in long-held biases that still cling to the discipline of art history like ivy to an old brick wall; sometimes you notice it, but mostly you forget that it’s there. You accept that it’s part of the structure. Art history has never been immune from the misogyny, racism, and homophobia that have affected other disciplines and other aspects of modern life. As Nochlin argues, the omission of women from the art historical narrative is a structural problem, a problem both of the discipline of art history and the structures of art production and instruction that it studies. Women could not be quote-unquote “great,” could not operate on the same level as men, because it was institutionally impossible for them to do so given the societal and artistic structures they were obligated to work within.

Nochlin concludes her essay by calling upon women in art and art history to use their perspective as historical underdogs to, quote, “reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and…take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone.”[16] Unquote. The project Nochlin calls for here is still being worked upon, and discussing the ins and outs of the journey towards gender and racial parity in the art and culture sector would constitute an entire new podcast episode. What is key to remember for the purposes of this episode, and particularly in relation to the situation of Rosalba Carriera, is that even while working under strict prohibitions as to what one can and cannot do, one can still achieve a great deal. Carriera certainly did, at least in my view. She was accepted to the French and Roman Academies as a professional, rather than an honorary, member, and she had friends and acquaintances campaigning for her acceptance. She was financially successful and internationally praised. She had the opportunity to depict the future King of France when he was still a boy. And rather than fall into the trap of Nochlin’s so-called “specialist scholars,” furiously attempting to act as hype-man for my favorite artist of the moment regardless of the fact that the hype itself is essentially meaningless, I think I’ll let those achievements stand for themselves. That’s all art historians really should have to do: set out what they happen to think makes their subject interesting, and let the strength of the evidence and the analysis make its own case, rather than establishing exclusive categories and titles for artists in a bid to reassure their fellow scholars that their scholarship matters.

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So what exactly can we take away from a viewing of Young Lady with a Parrot? As always, there are nearly infinite perspectives from which to view a given artwork, and what I discuss in these podcasts is by no means the Only Viewpoint Worth Considering. Carriera’s career seems to me to be a perfect opportunity to think about that Linda Nochlin essay and whether or not it holds up in our current climate. The public is more conscious than ever, it seems, of the institutional basis of sexism and other forms of prejudice. We’re more aware that some of the questions that are put to us about women’s achievements and place in society are traps, set so that well-intentioned feminists and allies are drawn into reinforcing restrictive structures when we try to answer them. The question of artistic “greatness” specifically is deeply fraught, given that the category has been so patently biased for so long. It’s even fraught in unexpected ways, for instance in terms of medium and genre: works in pastel were long considered to be less significant than those done in tempera or oils. Still life images or landscapes, among other genres, were considered less significant than paintings depicting well-known historical or literary scenes. Regardless of artistic skill or social standing, a pastellist could never be as great as an oil painter, and a painter of landscapes could never be as great as a painter of histories—or so art institutions said, and so we in the West believed, for hundreds of years. These restrictions, like gender or race-based restrictions, served little purpose except to reinforce the power of the institutions that proclaimed them as some kind of artistic law.

Young Lady with a Parrot is a gorgeous and obviously very skilled work of art, regardless of the specifics of its creator’s life or the relative difficulty of its execution in comparison to a portrait in oils. It’s also conceptually intriguing: are we supposed to accept that the parrot carries the traditional meaning that Cesare Ripa gives it? Or are we supposed to dig deeper into classical literature to find its meaning? Or is it perhaps just a really sassy, annoying parrot? It’s socially intriguing, too: it doesn’t seem to be an allegory for anything in particular, which means it must be a portrait. But what sort of conventional subject in this period would want to be portrayed with her bodice open to her navel and her breasts nearly exposed? These are questions that may never be definitively answered, but Young Lady with a Parrot nevertheless stands as a particularly intriguing work that prompts us to question our assumptions about artists, their materials, their lives, and the standards to which they were held.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, including links to images and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. You can also now subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Go ahead and rate and review us there, too—it helps us out a lot! Follow us on Twitter at arthistory4all—that’s art history, number 4, all—for hints about upcoming episode topics and other fun art stuff.

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed so you won’t miss future episodes, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.

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Extra Music Credits:

Prelude in C (BWV 846) Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Southside, Keeping Stuff Together, and How I Used to See the Stars by Lee Rosevere via freemusicarchive.org
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

[1] Image: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/103887/

[2] Bernardina Sani, “Rosalba Carriera’s ‘Young Lady with a Parrot,’” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 17, no. 1 (1991): 75.

[3] Sani, “Young Lady with a Parrot,” 75; Daniel Heartz, “Rosalba, Faustina, and Hasse: A Passion for Pastels,” in Artists and Musicians: Portrait Studies from the Rococo to the Revolution, ed. Beverly Wilcox (Ann Arbor: Steglein Publishing, 2014), 95.

[4] Heartz, 97.

[5] Christopher M.S. Johns, “‘An Ornament of Italy and the Premier Female Painter of Europe’: Rosalba Carriera and the Roman Academy,” in Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Melissa Hyde and Jennifer Milam (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003): 25-26.

[6] Johns, 28-29.

[7] Johns, 27; Encyclopedia Americana, 1920 ed., s.v. “Sequin,” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Encyclopedia_Americana_(1920)/Sequin

[8] Johns, 27.

[9] Johns, 23.

[10] Johns, 27-8.

[11] Johns 27.

[12] Sani, 82-85.

[13] Quoted in Sani, 85.

[14] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, originally published 1971, ArtNews, republished May 30, 2015, http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/30/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/

[15] Nochlin, ArtNews.

[16] Nochlin, ArtNews.

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