‘Female artists are the perfect example of a creator. They know how to make life and art with their bodies. Life comes from their bodies, so in a very basic level, their power to create is beyond compare’ Brandon Boyd
Few days ago one of my online friends, Clara Feder, trans-media artist living in Paris, France (http://www.feder.me/) shared on social media a very interesting article called ‘The Woman Who Found Abstraction Before The Modernists’. I met Clara through our common friend and talented Dutch Fine Art Photographer, Danielle Van Zadelhoff and knew that whatever she posts is worthwhile to at least take a look at. The article that I have in mind was about a Swedish abstract artist Hilda af Klint whose collection from 1906 called, ‘Primordial Chaos’, stands today as ‘the first abstract art’.
What I’ve learned from Seymour Magazine inspired me to ‘break the silence’ about the position of women within the world of Art. If the (art) world we live in wasn’t ‘a men’s world’, why did the genius artist doubt the ‘positive perception of her innovative and otherworldly artwork’ so much, that she ordered to hide her canvases for years after her death, because she thought the world wouldn’t accept or understand all that she created. As a matter of fact Hilda wasn’t wrong – as her abstract works had never been exhibited, and would not see a museum or gallery wall until the late 1980s. Nowadays the artist returns to galleries in glory as the one who has put the grounds for the abstract movement. I’d even risk a statement that she has been ‘mother of abstract art’ for Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, that the world was simply not ready to ‘approve’.
My contemplation of Af Klint artworks, her innovative approach and her struggles naturally stimulated me to look for other female artists that were pioneers, innovators and rule-breakers. I wanted to find out how did they manage to succeed and find recognition. Before falling asleep that night, I’ve been reading long about an Italian female artist whose miniatures on ivory and beautifully painted snuff boxes were in great demand and was requested by many members of nobility in Europe to paint their portraits.
Rosalba Carriera, ‘Anna Katerina Orzelska’, 1730
Charles Sackville 2nd Duke of Dorset by Rosalba Carriera
When I woke up few hours later I realized that my travelling in time started all over again – as I’ve been turned to Maria Clementina Sobieska, the one of the wealthiest heiresses in Europe and granddaughter of the Polish King John III Sobieski. It was early 18th century, around 1720, what I could make out from the types of clothes everybody was wearing and interiors full of rich, baroque ornaments and decorations.
What I’ve learned from the ladies in waiting that accompanied me, helping me out to put my robes on, we were expecting a special guest, a Venetian portrait painter and miniaturist.
Rosalba Carriera , ‘Portrait with a rose’
In the early morning hours, when I got out of bed, the ladies-in-waiting surrounded me like I was handicapped and needed somebody to help me put my feet on the floor and stand up. Totally astonished, I was watching them taking my hands like they belonged to a big, porcelain doll, cleaning delicately, touching just my fingertips with a wet sponge, then dried them with a white cloth. A mystical ritual, one may say. Unearthly experience for an earthly person like me.
When we finished, one of the ladies insisted that according to the wish of his majesty, the king, I shall put on special wardrobe.
-‘What do you mean by ‘special’ wardrobe ?’ – I asked, quite intrigued and at the same time irritated that they did not offer me the light rose and grey one that the court tailor prepared for me few weeks ago.
– ‘Today, your highness, you must put on your wedding dress. We also shouldn’t forget about the Mary of Modena’s pearls. If is for the portrait, don’t you remember?
Rosalba Carriera, An Unknown Lady In An Italian Dress, ca 1710-1720, Wallace Collection
– ‘Oh, yes, of course’ – I said obediently, having no slightest idea what were they talking about, letting them add a blue ribbon to my robe. I was sure that there must be a hidden meaning behind that as well. Was it an allusion to the Garter ribbon that stood for my recent marriage with king James or a symbol of ‘blue blood’ that was undoubtedly running through my veins? A symbol of my background, that I’ve been ‘noble enough’ to deserve the kings hand and a throne ? One thing was sure, this accessory had a very practical role to play as well- as it was supposed to keep my cloak in one place.
Rosalba Carriera, Maria Clementina Sobieska,1720, watercolour on ivory
As it turned out later, this quite extra-ordinary look was soon to be immortalized on a pastel miniature by the famous Venezian painter, Rosalba Carriera . The artist has been invited to Rome to paint the royal couple, so myself and the king. I have heard about Carriera and knew that she was best known for her innovative approach to pastels, which had previously been used for informal drawings and preparatory sketches. What is more, she is also credited with popularizing their use as medium for serious portraiture.
When I was ready with my morning routines – I dismissed ladies. Once Rosalba entered the chamber, I could hide my contentment and approached her eagerly. Privacy at the court is a scarce, a luxury that the queen couldn’t afford.
When I saw Carriera, standing with her face to face, I could not stop myself from embracing her, not able to stop the tears falling down my face:
‘ I am so lost. This never-ending masquerade makes me feel both sick and hopeless while everybody else must be thinking that I am living in some kind of fairyland. It’s an unbearable torture waking up here every day , with no chance for a change. First of all , it’s plain to see that the king does not love me. He never did, frequently seeing other woman. In addition to that, he seems to get away with that all, keeping it all under wraps. I still don’t understand why the Pope did acknowledge us as the King and Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, if our marriage is just a game of appearances?
Rosalba Carriera, Bust of Prince James Charles Edward Stuart
– I’m feeling like I was just like a piece of royal jewelry created to shine and please the Stuart family – I continued – ‘A precious tool that was necessary for a ‘profitable transaction’. Do you want to know the reason why am I here? The answer is simple. Like everyone else, I am here to spectate, to impress everybody with my beauty, eloquence and charm. The thing is, however, that my husband couldn’t care less about me. I really envy you dear Rosalba, you’re so lucky, you are free, can travel the world, everybody loves your paintings.
– ‘Everything is not as bright as it may seem, queen Maria. I wasn’t always this happy and successful. Believe me, for long time my works haven’t been treated seriously, because they were produced by a woman. I barely received any money in return for long hours spend on portraits. So I painted as professional artist do and I all received in return were gloves and hand-embroidered sachets.’
Rosalba Carriera , Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo as ‘Bernice’, Detroit Institute Of Arts
I felt sorry for the painter , but also knew, that she was too strong to accept ‘the status quo’. I told her out about my turbulent and unhappy marriage and was sure to receive a valuable advice. Since I was talking to the one of the brightest women artist of any era, I knew she’s the one to turn to.
Rosalba Carriera, ‘Ragazza con pappagallo’, 1720 ca, Chicago – Art Institute
When Rosalba carried on telling me about the difficult beginning of her career as a painter, she kept looking at me, studying my face full of sadness, my well-styled hair and my dress.
-‘Don’t you worry, dearest queen Maria. I’m there to help you. There is something that we can do, you just need to be patient. First let me paint your miniature. I did not come here to create a portrait from which the king or anybody else could read your tears and pain. On the contrary, I will present you as a stunning beauty from which the incredible strength of your sensitive character will illuminate forever, telling the world how exceptional you’ve been. The portrait will be a reflection of your sensitivity, magnificent features and your gentle heart – and I am certain that this is what the kind going to miss, when you’ll be gone.’
-‘But what is that you have in your mind – I asked, sniffing, feeling the hope growing in my heart- What could possibly save me from this life that I can’t resist?
– ‘You need to remember, dear queen, that God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. I don’t know exactly how long you’ll need to wait, maybe a year or two, but I will use all my connections to get you out of here. I need to speak to your compatriot and my most protective and generous patron living in Poland, to make sure you’ll be transferred to a remote convent where you could become a nun and find your peace. Just pray and trust God and ,I’m convinced that you’ll be saved.’
Rosalba Cariera, Autoportrait ,1744
Deep inside I knew that the Venetian painter was right, so I did not interrupt her work anymore. I was standing still and I felt that my eyes were shining with a new light, mirroring my relief and hope, the promising perspective that the wise and empathetic painter Carriera has seeded in my heart.
As a matter of fact, the one of a kind, innovative and fearless artist, the female master of soft edges and flattering surfaces wasn’t painting just another pastel miniature. Her work was a tribute to the greatness and power of women what inspired me to keep my head up high. But most importantly, the moment I witnessed was a thing to remember, as the female artist and pioneer of ‘the new art’ started to work on an artwork that by some art historians is perceived as a prototype for oil paintings later produced and followed by many painters, including Martin van Meytens and Le Brun.
Rosalba Carriera, Spring, ca 1720, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Rosalba Carriera, Autumn, ca 1720, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia