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Pietro Antonio Rotari (Verona 1707-1762 Saint Petersburg)
Pietro Antonio Rotari (Verona 1707-1762 Saint Petersburg)

A sleeping young girl

Details
Pietro Antonio Rotari (Verona 1707-1762 Saint Petersburg)
A sleeping young girl
inscribed with the collector's cypher of Prins von Kaunitz-Rietberg (lower right)
oil on canvas
17½ x 13¾ in. (44.5 x 35 cm.)

Lot Essay

Pietro Rotari studied first in his native Verona with Antonio Balestra before setting off in 1727 for Rome and Naples, where he entered first the studio of Francesco Trevisani and then Francesco Solimena. He returned to his hometown in 1734 where he opened a private academy. There, he concentrated on the production of the historical and religious paintings which were to bring him international fame. In 1740, Rotari was awarded the title of Count of the Venetian Republic in recognition of his achievements. The following year he traveled to Vienna, where he met Jean-Etiènne Liotard, the Swiss pastellist, whose work profoundly influenced him. Rotari was in Dresden in the service of Frederick Augustus III when he received an invitation from the Empress Elisabeth of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great, to come to St. Petersburg as first painter of the court. He arrived in Russia in 1756 and soon amassed a large fortune: a visit to his richly appointed house on the Bolsciasia Morskaia was obligatory for high-ranking visitors to the city.

Although he continued to work as a history painter in Saint Petersburg, it was there that Rotari developed the genre still associated with his name: small paintings of idealized heads, delicate and studiously artless in style, depicting the emotions of young boys and girls. It would appear that virtually all of these heads were executed during the six-year period between Rotari's arrival in Russia and his death in 1762.

Using a minimum of props - a closed fan, a sprig of jasmine, an open book, or, as here, none at all, Rotari presented absorbed reverie, timid surprise, or relaxed sleep, to the delight of his contemporaries. After Rotari's sudden death, Catherine the Great bought 340 of the artist's 'fancy pictures' for the salon of Peterhof, where small and large canvases are arranged in a careful pattern across the walls above and between intricately carved rococo doors and mirrors (figs. 1 & 2). A version of the present painting, with differences, hangs at Peterhof. Those pictures that Catherine did not buy were returned to Rotari's family in Verona, where they remained in the possession of his descendants until the late nineteenth century.

The present painting belonged to one of the great collectors of eighteenth century Europe, Wenzel Anton, Prince von Kaunitz-Rietberg (1711-1794), who lived at Kaunitz Stadtpalais, Dorotheergasse, Vienna, and whose cypher is stenciled on the lower right corner of the present painting (fig. 3). The son of an Austrian count, Kaunitz rose through a diplomatic career in Italy, the Netherlands and Paris to become Chancellor of Austria in 1753. In that office he became and remained the closest confidant of the Empress Maria Theresa (by whom he was made a prince in 1764) and was the single most important force behind Austria's intellectual, political and domestic development until 1792. Enlightened, broad-minded and acutely intelligent, he made a decisive mark on his era.

A highly cultured man, and a key figure in the Austrian Enlightenment, Kaunitz was convinced of the value of the arts for the economic and moral development of the state, and went to great lengths to promote Austria's artistic and cultural growth. In 1766 he opened the Kupferstichakademie in Vienna, established by Jakob Matthias Schmutzer (1733-1811). In 1772 this was combined with the Akademie der Maler, Bildhauer und Baukünstler and the Graveurakademie to form the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, under Kaunitz's protection. In addition, he improved public training for artists and encouraged the free development of the Akademie students' creative abilities. He fostered many artists personally, including Franz Anton Zauner, Heinrich Friedrich Füger and Ignaz Unterberger, often awarding pensions for foreign study. Kaunitz's considerable art collection, which was dispersed between 1820-30, was housed in his palace in Vienna, and included a huge cabinet of prints as well as Rembrandt's Study of an elderly woman in a white cap (sold, Sotheby's, New York, 26 January 2006, lot 10).

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