The Venetian Carnival reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, when foreign travelers flocked to Venice for the masked revelries that became synonymous with the city. At the time, Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757) was the preeminent portraitist in Venice. Rosalba had developed an easily identifiable style in her pastel portraits, and her studio was a popular stop for visiting foreigners, who often posed for her in their elegant Carnival costumes. The Frick’s Portrait of a Man in Pilgrim’s Costume (ca. 1730) is most likely one such work. The sitter is possibly French, British, or German, but his identity is unknown to this day. With his black cape, pilgrim’s staff, and tricorn hat precariously perched on his head, he is depicted as a pilgrim.
The Swiss-born artist Nicolas Party (b. 1980) fell in love with the medium of pastel in the summer of 2013, after seeing Picasso’s Tête de Femme (1921) in an exhibition. This momentous encounter prompted Party to embrace a medium that he has described as “fast and versatile . . . very gentle . . . just dust,” with colors that are “vibrant and pure.” Pastel is now Party’s primary medium, and he has used it to produce landscapes, still lifes, and portraits in the Western figurative tradition. Over the years, Party has created work in response to that of European painters such as Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845), Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), and René Magritte (1898–1967), to name just a few. In late 2019, Party organized the Pastel exhibition at the FLAG Art Foundation in New York, where he created large—and ephemeral—pastel murals inspired by the work of French eighteenth-century artists such as François Boucher (1703–1770) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806).
Party’s specially commissioned large pastel mural at Frick Madison is in dialogue with Rosalba’s Carnival-inspired portraits, particularly her Portrait of a Man in Pilgrim’s Costume. Much like stage curtains framing a play, the elaborate draperies in his mural highlight the Rosalba portrait along with two portraits Party created in response to Rosalba’s work. These ornate draperies evoke the work of two other towering figures in the European technique of pastel painting—Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) and Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788)—and echo the function of Venetian Carnival masks, which were designed to both conceal and reveal the features of those wearing them. Party’s work engages devices of disguise and disclosure, from masks to draperies to makeup (often produced using the same chemical components used to make pastel sticks). Through technique and style, the installation connects the elegance and sophistication of the eighteenth century with works of art created today—a dialogue between past and present and a reflection on the roles of concealing and revealing in art, as in life.
Installation views of Nicolas Party and Rosalba Carriera at Frick Madison (June 1, 2023–March 3, 2024). Photos Joseph Coscia Jr.