In the summer of 1878, John Singer Sargent had just completed his studies with Carolus-Duran, and had already started to have success at the Salon in Paris. He went off on a working holiday to Capri, staying in the village of Anacapri, as was popular with other artists at the time.
Capri was still quite a select holiday destination then, and unspoilt. But getting a local model was tricky, because of the warnings that women were given by priests. History has proved those priests only too right in their advice.
One young local woman, Rosina Ferrara, seemed happy to pose for him, though. She was only 17, and Sargent a mere 22 and just developing his skills in portraiture, following the advice of Carolus-Duran. Over the course of that summer, Sargent painted at least a dozen works featuring young Rosina, who seems to have become almost an obsession with him.
One, Dans les Oliviers, à Capri, above, he exhibited at the Salon the following year. A near-identical copy A Capriote, below, he sent back for the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York, in March 1879. The latter is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
He also painted a pair of views of what was probably the roof of his hotel. In View of Capri, above, made on cardboard, Rosina stands looking away, her hands at her hips. In the other, Capri Girl on a Rooftop, below, she dances a tarantella to the beat of a friend with a tambourine. The latter painting Sargent dedicated “to my friend Fanny”, who is presumably Fanny Watts, who modelled for the first portrait which Sargent exhibited at the Salon in 1877.
Rosina appears to have danced for Sargent again, for him to paint her in Portrait of Rosina Ferrara, above, a precursor to his paintings of Spanish dancers, perhaps.
But of all Sargent’s paintings of Rosina, the finest portrait, possibly one of the finest of all his ‘quick’ portraits from early in his career, is another painted in oils on cardboard: Rosina Ferrara, Head of a Capri Girl.
This he dedicated to “Hyde” (the artist Frank Hyde), and signed in 1878, while he was still on Capri.
There are another couple of portraits which he painted of a young woman during that summer on Capri. Although she is in more serious mood, possibly even a little surly with ennui, I can’t help but wonder if they also show Rosina Ferrara.
Sargent left Capri, eventually returning to Paris and his inexorable rise to greatness, fortune, and success. But that wasn’t the end of Rosina’s modelling career, not by a long way. Frank Hyde, to whom Sargent had dedicated his portrait of her, painted his own in about 1880.
Here she reclines in a classical pose, the coast of Capri behind her, as she is serenaded by two young maids.
At this time, Rosina seems to have modelled for other artists too, including Adrian Stokes, who visited Capri on honeymoon, Alfred Stevens, and Charles Sprague Pearce. I have only been able to locate one work derived from what must have been several dozen paintings of her, an engraving based on a portrait by Charles Sprague Pearce, below. This was probably the work that Pearce exhibited at the Salon in 1882.
By 1891, Rosina had met the American artist George Randolph Barse, and that year they married in Rome. The couple later returned to live in the US, eventually settling in Katonah, Westchester County, NY, where Barse pursued quite a successful career.
Although very little of Barse’s work is now accessible over the internet, the large wall paintings which he made in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress are. These were commissioned in 1895, and probably painted in the following year. The two that I show here are Romance, and Erotica (meaning love poetry rather than the modern sense of soft porn).
I don’t know whether Rosina ever modelled for her husband, or whether she may have modelled for those two particular paintings. I like to see a resemblance in them to the young woman who had John Singer Sargent so smitten that summer on Capri.
Barse and his wife were clearly very devoted. She died from pneumonia in 1934 at the age of 73. Barse struggled on for four years without her, but finally killed himself with carbon monoxide in 1938, to rejoin his muse.