Purchased with funds donated by Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
Pastel on paper mounted on canvas
16 1/2 x 13 in.
Eighteenth-century Europe recognized four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, and America (including North and South America, generally depicted as a single land mass). It was common, in illustrations found on the title pages of European atlases published during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to personify the continents, representing each one as a woman identified through details of costume (e.g., a turban for "exotic" Africa) or attribute ("civilized" Europe often holds a scepter). America is clearly part of such a set, as indicated by the figure's headband, feathered hair ornament, and quiver of arrows.2 However, in standard rococo style, Rosalba Carriera has created an image that is fashionable, not ethnologically correct. The headband is made of precious gems, the earrings and hair ornament are obviously European in design, and it is doubtful that the thin, rose-colored strap intended to support both the quiver and the woman's tunic could serve either function.
America's pastel color scheme, soft-edged forms, and flirtatious pink-tinted nipple peeking through her clothes are all typically rococo. What makes this picture unusual is the characteristically informal way in which Carriera has treated her subject. The woman's head is cocked to one side and her expression is quizzical, leading viewers to wonder what she is thinking about. A similar interest in psychological exploration is apparent in many of Carriera's later works. Also noteworthy is the artist's loose, painterly use of the pastels, creating a surface that is at once delicate and lively.
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© 2008-2012 National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.