Pietro Rotari, 18th-Century Serialist

As art collector Catherine the Great had the budget to buy anything she wanted. She bought some 4000 European paintings, and 368 of them—about 9 percent—were by Pietro Antonio Rotari.

Who? A mini-show at the Norton Simon Museum answers that question. "Serial Flirtations: Rotari's Muses" is about the vagaries of reputation as much as it is about its now little-known subject.
Verona-born Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707-62) was an 18th-century jack-of-all-trades, capable at religious paintings and aristocratic portraits, and active at the courts of Vienna, Dresden, and St. Petersburg. Today Rotari is known for character heads and half-lengths of anonymous young women displaying a variety of emotions and costumes. They are poised between Rembrandt's tronies and Vermeer's letter-writers, on the one hand, and the Enlightenment interest in classifying emotions like so many pinned butterflies.
Rotari was already famous for this subject in 1756, when Russian Empress Elizabeth summoned him to St. Petersburg. Russian oligarchs and boojees adored Rotari. He assembled a large studio to meet market demand, especially of the fungible character heads that did not have to offer a specific likeness. After Rotari's death, Catherine the Great bought the unsold stock of character heads from the artist's widow. She displayed them in one of Europe's more delirious rooms, the Cabinet of Fashions and Graces in the Peterhof Grand Palace, St. Petersburg. Despite the Rococo trappings, the room is now often compared to a photographic contact sheet or to Warhol serialism.

Rotari was not of much interest to American collectors in 1979, when Norton Simon bought the half-length Young Girl Writing a Love Letter (c. 1755, top of post). The following year Simon purchased a half-dozen character heads that had remained in the artist's family through the 20th century. The current exhibition displays all seven of Simon's purchases, plus a 1987 gift to the museum, a portrait now attributed to Rotari's studio.
Simon's character heads are arrayed on one wall, next to a photomural of the Peterhof Grand Palace room. That and the exhibition's title recognizes that Rotari is now framed as an unlikely precursor to Monet and Warhol. The perception is largely due to the Peterhof display, devised by Catherine's French architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe after Rotari was dead. Recent research shows that some Rotari paintings were trimmed to facilitate Vallin de la Mothe's Procrustean hang.

There is a difference between serialism and repeating oneself, though it's not always a clear one.


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