Laura Gascoigne

Modern, timeless, effortlessly avant-garde: Pasquarosa, at the Estorick Collection, reviewed

Her wonderfully honest paintings are as fresh today as when they first charmed London a century ago

‘Oysters, Mussels and Lemon’, c. 1963, by Pasquarosa. Courtesy Archivio Nino e Pasquarosa Bertoletti, Rome

In February 1929, an exhibition by a young unknown female painter opened at the Arlington Gallery on Bond Street. This was not surprising in itself, given that the gallery specialised in lesser-known artists. More surprising was the fact that this artist was a woman – and Italian.

As the critic Emilio Cecchi noted in the catalogue: ‘As regards the best Italian art of today the English public knows very little.’ What piqued people’s interest in this particular Italian artist was her fascinating backstory. Born in 1896 in Anticoli Corrado, a small hill town northeast of Rome known as a nursery for artists’ models, Pasquarosa Marcelli had never painted and was virtually illiterate when she moved to the capital in 1912, aged 16, to work as a model. There she fell in love and shacked up with the artist Nino Bertoletti and, inspired by a model friend who had taught herself sculpture, tried her hand at painting. She took to it like a duck to water. By 1915, her work was hanging in the third annual exhibition of the Roman secessionists, a group of independent-minded artists who eschewed both passatismo and futurismo, preferring to plough their own furrows. The influential critic Cipriano Efisio Oppo greeted her as un fenomeno.

Without any background in art, Pasquarosa had an eye – and took every chance to educate it

The human-interest angle made good copy. The Westminster Gazette headed its coverage ‘Peasant Artist’, and her model looks helped; she was ‘herself a beautiful creature’, noted the reviewer for the American Magazine of Art. But although promoted to a London audience as ‘the best-known woman painter in Italy’, Pasquarosa, as she always signed herself, was not yet that well established in her native land. The London exhibition, her first solo show, put her on the map; later that year she was given a room to herself at the artists’ union exhibition in Rome and the following year she debuted at the Venice Biennale.

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