Pietro Antonio Rotari was born in Verona on September 30, 1707, the son of a distinguished local physician and scientist. He received drawing lessons as a child from the Flemish engraver, Robert Van Auden-Aerdt, and from an early age produced etchings, mostly of sacred themes. He was apprenticed to the Veronese painter Antonio Balestra, who greatly influenced his early style of history painting, from 1723 to 1725. In 1726 he travelled to Venice to study the city's old master and contemporary paintings, in particular the works of Piazzetta (1683-1754) and Tiepolo (1696-1770). From 1727 to 1731 Rotari lived in Rome under the aegis of a Veronese canon, Francesco Biancolini, and studied with Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746). Rotari's local reputation was established when a painting of his was sent from Rome to the Accademia Filarmonica in Verona in 1728 and was praised by the noted scholar and author, Francesco Scipione Maffei. He interrupted his Roman sojourn in 1729 to visit Naples, where he studied the works of Francesco Solimena and other artists attached to the Bourbon court of Ferdinand IV. In 1734 he returned to his native Verona, and in the following year opened a private academy of painting.
Rotari forged these eclectic influences into a style that brought him modest success with commissions for churches and palaces in Bergamo, Brescia, Casale Monferrato, Guastalla, Padua, Reggio Emilia, Rovigo, Udine, Verdara, and Verona. At the same time he received numerous commissions from Italian patrons as diverse as Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, the Palatine elector Karl Theodor, and Queen Louise Ulrike of Sweden. On February 7, 1749, Rotari, in recognition of his merit as a painter, was invested with the title of "Conte dal Senato Veneto" by the Venetian Republic.
In 1750 Rotari moved to Vienna to work for Empress Maria Theresa, producing mythological and religious paintings and portraits of the nobility. There he encountered the work of Jean-Etienne Liotard, and his own paintings began to reveal the clear, cold colors, porcelain surfaces, and smooth handling associated with the Swiss artist's oils and pastels. Around 1752-1753 he was summoned to Dresden by King Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, where he painted devotional works and portraits of members of the Saxon court. He developed there the genre upon which his fame rests: elegant and idealized bust- and half-length studies of attractive young women in ethnic or regional dress exhibiting a broad range of expressions such as melancholy, surprise, joy, and languor.
In 1755 Empress Elizabeth of Russia invited Rotari to St. Petersburg and the following year appointed him court painter. He spent the remainder of his life working in the city and its environs for the Imperial family and for the Russian aristocracy. He produced, together with assistants, hundreds of so-called character heads, bust-length images of young woman displaying superficial psychological and emotional states. The most famous assemblage of these is the so-called Cabinet of the Muses at Peterhof, but Rotari's works also graced other Imperial residences at Oranienbaum and Gatchina, and noble houses like Arkhangelskoye, the Yusopov palace near Moscow.
Rotari is historically important as one of the main representatives of a group of Italian artists who worked in Germany, Poland, and Russia, spreading a sort of international rococo style whose Italian origin is often hardly recognizable. He instituted at St. Petersburg a private academy of painting, and his most important Russian pupils were the painters Alexei Petrovich Antropov and Feodor Stepanovich Rokotov. Rotari died at the Imperial court at St. Petersburg on August 31, 1762. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Barbarani, Emilio. Pietro Rotari. Verona, 1941.
Nikolenko, Lada. "Pietro Rotari in Russia and America." The Connoisseur 171 (July 1969): 191-196.
Polazzo, Marco. Pietro Rotari: pittore veronese del settecento. Verona, 1990.
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 243.