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Pietro Antonio Rotari
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
Recommendation by Andy Brumer

Pietro Antonio Rotari, "Young Girl Writing a Love Letter," c. 1755, oil on canvas, 33 3/8 x 27"

Continuing through July 31, 2017

If you find yourself humming The Beach Boy’s lyric, “I wish they all could be California Girls” while viewing eight evocative bust-length portraits in oil of young women by Pietro Antonio Rotari (Italian 1707-1762) don’t chastise yourself too harshly. These paintings, attributed to Rotari and his studio, comprise an intriguing, and slightly disturbing little show housed in the rotating exhibition space just off of the museum's lobby. Rotari himself referred to these subjects as “muses” and he masterfully wrought each painting in fluid yet sturdy brushstrokes, radiant light, and creamy and voluminous color tones. Collectively they certainly earn and echo the museum’s title for the mini exhibition, “Serial Flirtations.”

However the objects of our gaze, their come hither looks not withstanding, seem less imbued with a healthy adolescent concupiscence that they (in today’s vulgar vernacular) truly “own” than with the artist’s psychological projections of his own unselfconscious sexual desires. Rotari dresses each woman in what the show’s wall text terms “exotic” clothing, which establishes a kind of serial procession of collective feminine archetypes: There’s a wholesome, perhaps Russian “farm girl,” a shabbily robed “waif,” and a sophisticated Arab “aristocrat.” Yet, rather than enjoying the experience of posing and supplying the erotic energy for the artist that one supposes he used if not needed to complete each work, the teens finally appear put out and impatient. Indeed, just as Rotari was a native of Verona, where Shakespeare set his iconic tragedy of star-crossed lovers over a century before, one can almost hear uttered from each young woman’s voluptuous though less than biddable lips, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Norton Simon Museum

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