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Old master paintings and drawings
This miniature has recently been the subject of a detailed study by Mrs. Bozena Anna Kowalczyk, an art historian specializing in eighteenth-century Venetian painting. This notice is largely based upon the study, which is available upon request. In addition, the attribution of this miniature to Rosalba Carriera has been confirmed by Bernardina Sani, the artist’s specialist, based upon digital photos.
This large miniature is a double portrait that is probably unique in the work of Rosalba Carriera, one of the most important female artists of the 18th century. A comparison with a watercolour portrait of Joseph Smith by Grevembroch has enabled us to identify the sitter, who is accompanied by his future wife, the singer Catherine Tofts. This miniature, dated around 1710-1715, is therefore the first known portrait of Joseph Smith, an essential figure in the history of 18th-century Venetian painting.
1. Rosalba Carriera, the extraordinary life of a female artist in 18th century Venice
Born in Venice in 1673, Rosalba Carriera began her artistic career as a painter of miniatures and snuff boxes. Her first known works date back to the 1690s, and she quickly became famous for her miniatures, which, in 1705, enabled her to become the first female member of the Academy of Saint Luke in Rome. She gradually abandoned miniatures for pastels, becoming one of the most sought-after portrait painters in Europe thanks to this medium.
In March 1720, on the invitation of Pierre Crozat, a financier and art collector, Rosalba Carriera went to Paris where she stayed for a year. Thanks to Crozat, she met some of the most important French painters of the time: Antoine Coypel, Jean Ranc, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Antoine Watteau (whose portrait she painted ), Jean-François de Troy, Nicolas de Largillière, Louis de Boulogne... Residing at Pierre Crozat's home, she was inundated with commissions from ladies of the Parisian aristocracy, hardly leaving her any time to work. On Coypel's suggestion, she was the first woman admitted to the Académie Royale on October 26th 1720 as a portrait painter. Her stay in Paris introduced pastel portraits to the Parisian public, and it was undoubtedly under her influence that Maurice Quentin de La Tour abandoned oil portraits to devote himself entirely to pastel painting.
Having returned to Venice from where she sent her pièce de réception to the Académie Royale in 1721, she pursued her activity as a portrait painter. Extremely sought after throughout Europe, she went to Modena in 1723 to paint the Grand Duke's daughters and to Vienna in 1730 to paint the Empress. She continued to paint until 1746-1747, before gradually going blind. She passed away in 1757.
2. Description of the double portrait
The man, wigged and dressed in a large red cape, is holding a black hat in his left hand. His gaze is turned towards the woman he may be greeting as she turns around to look at the viewer. In her left hand she is holding a mask (the famous Venetian bauta). Her celadon green coat, which is open at the front, is very elegant: it is entirely lined with golden embroidery which also adorns her wide sleeves trimmed with finely detailed lace.
The man's right hand is carefully depicted; a black knot fastens a lace cuff to his wrist. His theatrical gesture slightly lifts his red cape and reveals a section of his brown jacket, also embroidered in gold.
This composition demonstrates great economy with colours: the red for the coat is echoed in the cockade that adorns the woman's hat, the black of the man's wig in the two hats, and finally a gradient of blues: dark blue for the sky which matches the green of the woman's coat, light blue for the faces and hands. This technique of picturing faces on a blue background is one of the characteristics of Rosalba Carriera's art as a miniaturist.
The back of the ivory plate on which this miniature is painted is entirely decorated with floral motifs made from tiny plates of tortoiseshell and metal spikes. This work leads us to believe that this piece is in fact a fondello, i.e. a snuffbox lid, whose decoration Rosalba Carriera specialised in.
3. A moving account of the meeting between Joseph Smith and Catherine Tofts
Established in Venice around 1700 as an import-export merchant, Joseph Smith (1674? - 1770) became a huge art collector and financed a publishing house. He became the agent of many artists, including Rosalba Carriera and the painter Canaletto, whom he encouraged to go to England in 1746. In 1744, he finally became Consul of England in Venice, a position he held until 1760. Most of his collection of books and paintings were acquired by King George III in 1762.
Rosalba Carriera is probably the first artist Smith met in Venice. Her diary records numerous commissions from him in the years 1723-1728, but it is likely that they met long before, probably through Carlo Gabrieli, Joseph Smith's lawyer who was also Rosalba Carriera's godfather, or through Anton Maria Zanetti di Girolamo (1680-1767), one of his close friends who was also a long-time friend of Rosalba.
The identification of this portrait is based on its very strong resemblance to the Portrait of a Consul, a watercolour painted around 1754-1759 by Giovanni Grevembroch (1731-1807) at the request of Pietro Gradenigo. This artist had been commissioned to depict professions, clothing and scenes of daily life in Venetian society (three photos from this book have been included in the gallery). Smith (then nearly 80 years old) is depicted aged about 45, in an outfit characteristic of English fashion around 1720. The lace sash and cuffs, and the brown suit with gold embroidery are very similar to those in our miniature.
Joseph Smith appears older here than in our miniature, and it is likely that this watercolour portrait was based on another portrait of Joseph Smith depicting him at an older age, which may itself be based on our miniature.
Catherine Tofts (ca. 1685 - 1756) arrived in Venice in 1709. She was a famous singer who had moved to Venice to escape her creditors. Shortly before her departure, she had interpreted the role of Climene in the opera Pirro e Demetrio by Alessandro Scarlatti. The Venetian painter Marco Ricci portrayed her during a rehearsal of this opera shortly before her departure for Venice.
Joseph Smith fell madly in love with Catherine Tofts after her arrival in Venice and married her in 1717. Bozena Anna Kowalczyk proposes a dating for this miniature around 1710-1715, i.e. in the early years after their encounter. The strong sentimental attraction between them is particularly noticeable in this miniature. The mask worn by Catherine Tofts can be interpreted as an attribute of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy – but perhaps is it also a way of escaping her creditors incognito?
Main bibliographic sources :
The Consul Smith Collection by Frances Vivian - Munich 1989
Canaletto and the art of Venice - Rosie Razzall and Lucy Whitaker - London 2017
Rosalba Carriera - Bernardina Sani - Torino 2007
A portrait of Consul Smith - Lucy Whitaker - Burlington Magazine March 2018
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