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Rosalba Carriera (Venice 1675 – Venice 1757)
Allegory of the Four Elements – Water, Air, Earth and Fire
Pastel on paper
33.5 x 30.5 cm
Inv: 569, 570, 571, 572
This series of the four elements was realized in pastel on paper, a technique widespread in the 1700s. Rosalba Carriera, a Venetian painter, became one of the portraitists most sought-after by the European nobility and sovereigns for her great skill at achieving effects of soft glowing color, immediacy and psychological insight in pastel. Allegorical series consisting of four personifications, of the continents, the seasons, or the elements, were a particularly popular typology in this period. Carriera completed this work between 1741 and 1743 for Giovan Francesco Stoppani, papal nuncio to the Venetian Senate.
The allegories are embodied in a set of portraits, depicted as a series of close-ups, while their attributes remain rather marginal (appearing on the lower right-hand side, with the exception of Air), combined with different colors or accessories that clarify their roles. In addition to a deep blue cloak, whose border can be glimpsed, Air holds a little bird by a thread; Water thoughtfully observes some fish hanging on what seems to be a fishing line; Earth displays a bunch of grapes (in this respect resembling an allegory of autumn) and wears a garland of flowers; Fire, with her tawny hair, wears garments of rose and peach color, and holds a small brazier in her hand, the pastel with the warmest colors.
Pastel technique is very practical in some ways, yet complex in others. Compared to oil on canvas it is the least expensive, and uses materials easy to transport. It is perfect for executing small portraits and responds to the demands of a prestigious and refined clientele. On the other hand, it calls for skill in execution and is unforgiving. It is extremely fragile, as even slight contact with the surface can alter the colors, which require specific fixatives.