Whitehot Magazine

A Collaboration for the Ages: Nicolas Party and Rosalba Carriera at The Frick Madison

Installation view of Nicolas Party and Rosalba Carriera at Frick Madison, looking right. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

By J. SCOTT ORR, July 2023

He’s a contemporary visual artist and muralist known for his use of bold colors in the creation of works that twist nature and humanity to evoke a level of uncertainty that can at times be frightening.

She was an 18th Century Venetian Rococo master and a prominent evangelist for pastels, whose subjects included Louis VX and whose success and influence rivaled that of any woman artist in history.

Aside from their shared love of pastels as a medium, contemporary artist Nicolas Party and the Italian portrait virtuoso Rosalba Carriera would seem to have little in common. But that didn’t stop Party from collaborating with Rosalba on a breathtaking, centuries-spanning installation at New York’s Frick Madison that at once pays tribute to Rosalba’s historic practice while exploiting the contemporary art bona fides of Party.

“It’s kind of an homage to all these different things; there’s the era and the medium and Rosalba is the central figure in all this,” Party said in an interview with Whitehot Magazine. Party cites Rosalba as a primary inspiration for his turn to pastels as his principle medium a decade ago.

“There’s such an ease in her approach and the way she treats the medium. She uses pastels in an amazing kind of way, very differently on the faces, the skin, than on the clothes and background. This range of techniques make the portraits energetic and alive,” he said.

The work takes up three walls in a Frick Madison third-floor alcove, with Rosalba’s masterpiece Portrait of a Man in Pilgrim’s Costume at center staring blankly straight ahead from beneath what look like dope-heavy eyelids. The unknown subject of this work, an 18th Century dandy likely visiting Rosalba’s studio during the Venetian Carnival at its decadent apotheosis, is wearing a tri-cornered hat and clutches a staff, but it is that round face and its dull look of androgynous sexuality that is most arresting.

Closeup of Nicolas Party’s Drappery with Rosalba Carriera’s Portrait of a Man in Pilgrim’s Costume from The Frick Collection. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

Pilgrim, which was acquired by the Frick only recently from the estate of publisher and art collector Alexis Gregory, is flanked on both side walls by new works from Party that ably capture the blank gaze and blasé allure of their 18th century antecedent. The pastel portraits mimic the original down to their tri-cornered hair-dos, but — rendered as they are in the Swiss-born artist’s signature style — they surrender to suspended reality, one in white face, one blue, both with pursed red lips like the subject of Pilgrim.

But Party doesn’t stop there. All three works are softened and given depth by trompe-l’oeil murals that nestle the three works in flowing vestments. The patterns of the fabric in these dimension-defying draperies were drawn from works by two of Rosalba’s contemporaries who shared her enthusiasm for pastel, the Frenchmen Maurice-Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Étienne Liotard.

“The idea at first was to have one new portrait, but we decided it would be stronger to have one Rosalba piece along with the two of mine on the sides,” Party said

Rosalba’s Pilgrim wears a gender-defying Venetian Carnival costume featuring a flowered top peaking out from beneath a black scarf, typical of pilgrims of the day. The outfits in Party’s portraits specify neither gender and both at the same time. The faces in all three portraits are imbued with that delicate interfusion of color and light that makes loud the similarities between pastels and make-up.  

The contrast between the remarkably preserved 350-year-old Roasalba work with its luscious, yet subtle, hues and the two pieces rendered in vibrant and bold colors by Party suggests the versatility, currency and timelessness of pastels as an artistic medium. The grand scale of the Party murals evokes a sense of oneness across the centuries and sets up a dialogue of sorts among the subjects of the three portraits and, at the same time, between the two artists.

Nicolas Party, Portrait, 2023. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

“I was looking at her piece, the Pilgrim, as I was making my own portraits as you can see in the lips and the eyes especially. In the colors, I was kind of echoing the colors she used. The blue in the face echos the jacket, for example. There is a kind of playfulness that makes the works in the entire installation balanced with each other,” Party said.

Rosalba, who is universally referred to by her first name, was an early champion of the use of pastels in portraiture, helping to bring the medium into favor among the elite who traveled to Venice for Carnival during the 18th Century. Pastels had been around since at least the 15th Century when Leonardo da Vinci may have experimented with them, though they were not considered to be a serious artistic medium.

Interest in pastels waned a bit after Rosalba’s day, but the medium came into favor again, this time for good, during the 19th Century when it was lent status by artists like Delacroix, Manet, Degas, even Whistler. Party said he was drawn to pastels by Rosalba’s oeuvre, but also by her contribution to art history.

“Of course, there is her own story, which is fascinating,” Party said of Rosalba. “She was one of the first to use pastels for finished work. You can attribute the trend of using pastels as a medium for portraits to her. Pastels were around long before she started using them, but they were always used for studies. She was one of the first to do it and then it became very popular and spread to France and England and across Europe,” Party said.

Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s deputy director who organized the project with chief curator Peter Jay Sharp, added that the installation grew from an ongoing dialogue he engaged in with Party on the subject of pastels. ”Nicolas’s installation at Frick Madison is the result of our exchanges, and I am delighted with the result,” he said.

Nicolas Party’s Drapery with Portrait. Right wall of installation at Frick Madison. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

The dialogue between artist and curator itself centered on Rosalba. Party and Salomon first bonded over their shared appreciation of her work when Party featured Portrait of a Lady at Three-Quarter Length, one of the Rosalba pieces he owns, during a show he organized in 2020 called Pastel at the Flag Art Foundation in New York.

The collaboration between Party, Rosalba and The Frick also yielded a forthcoming book, one of four new titles in the museum's Diptych series, which pairs historically significant works from its collection with an essay from a Frick curator and contributions from contemporary artists. The publication features an essay by Salomon and Sharp along with text by Party.

Frick’s Diptych series, now with 13 titles, has proven popular. Among other pairings in the series: Monet’s Vétheuil in Winter with an essay by Susan Grace Galassi and text and new work by artist Olafur Eliasson and Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid with an essay by Margaret Iacono and a literary piece by academy award winning film director, producer, and screenwriter James Ivory.

The Party-Rosalba  installation will be on view at the museum's temporary location Frick Madison, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in New York, until the museum returns to its renovated building at 1 E 70th St. in March of next year. WM

Scott Orr

Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine. He can be reached via @bscenezine, bscenezine.com, or bscenezine@gmail.com.

view all articles from this author