The word “exotic” is thrown around rather indiscriminately when describing women’s looks. Someone called me exotic once, and although I took it as a compliment, I’d say the adjective was a little over the top in reference to me. How “exotic” is a middle class, subway riding, public school educated girl from Queens? Sure I’m of Armenian ancestry and have deep set eyes, but come on. Exotic? That’s pushing it.
The word “exotic” encompasses more than just a somewhat unconventional physical appearance, like in my case. It includes culture, language, geography, traditions. A true exotic figure might be described thusly: “the tawny skinned, panther eyed, elf-like, wildest and lithest of all the savage creatures on the savage isle of Capri”. Now THAT sounds exotic! And who is the enigmatic woman behind that description? A 17 year old native Capri girl named Rosina Ferrara.
Capri is an Italian island off the coast of Sorrento, located in the southern part of the Gulf of Naples. During the 19th century, Capri attracted artists, musicians, and writers from all over the world, drawn to its beauty, friendly inhabitants, and inspiring, rustic ambiance. Olive trees and vineyards dot the landscape, wild boars roam the countryside, and fisherman toil in the harbors. Greeks, Romans, Moors, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards all settled on Capri at various times throughout the island’s history, and that diverse mixture of ethnicities blended into a unique Mediterranean culture.
Born into a working class family in 1861, Rosina Ferrara was first discovered by the French artist Edward Vaux, and soon after became the regular model for Englishman Frank Hyde. Beguiled by Rosina’s nutty brown complexion, frizzy textured hair, and sweet disposition, Hyde drew powerful inspiration from the native girl, described often as an “Arab/Greek type”. But Hyde’s exclusive possession of Rosina would be disturbed with the arrival of another artist in search of fresh inspiration. Enter John Singer Sargent.
He came to Capri in 1878, and the hot, sticky weather almost prompted Sargent to turn around and go right back to Paris. In letters he wrote to friends, he complained about the humidity and the bugs, claiming to be “bitten from head to toe”. But fellow artist Frank Hyde took mercy on the suffering Sargent and offered him a place to stay. There, in Hyde’s studio located an abandoned monastery, Sargent was introduced to the young model and local girl, Rosina. And he was instantly captivated by her uncommon beauty, Arabic features, and dark skin. An artist had met his muse.
This 1878 Sargent painting of Rosina is extraordinary. An artistic “home run”. I love everything about it, from the clothes, the gesture, the brush strokes, and Rosina’s natural, uninhibited, seemingly spontaneous movement. Sargent captures it all brilliantly. I’d take this painting over that stiff, bourgeois Madame X anyday. That painting is cold, staged, dripping with affectation. This one is warm, genuine, and spirited. Rosina is earthy and unselfconscious. And just look at that smile:
By all accounts, Rosina was a superb model whose posing abilities rivaled any of the professional models of Paris. And the inspiring energy she radiated is evident on the canvas. Some of the Capri natives, however, had reservations about Rosina, or any of the local girls, posing for visiting foreign artists. They were concerned, rightly I’d say, that the men were seeking to exploit and take advantage of the young ladies who were somewhat naive to the ways of the world. I was very disappointed (that’s putting it mildly) to discover that Sargent never paid Rosina for her modeling. What a fucking dick! (Sorry).
In 1883, Rosina gave birth to a daughter, Maria Carlotta. The father’s identity is unknown. After a relationship with Belgian artist Alfred Stevens, Rosina eventually married the American muralist George Randolph Barse in 1891. They moved to the United States and lived in Katonah, Westchester County, just north of New York City. A prominent, respected man, Barse was a member of the National Academy of Design, the Salmagundi Art Club, the Century Club (I work at all those places 🙂 ), and the Society of American Artists. The marriage was a happy and healthy one, and lasted for 43 years until Rosina’s death from pneumonia in 1934. Barse was devastated by the loss of Rosina and never fully recovered. Unable to go on, he took his own life just three years later. On a cold February afternoon, he sealed himself in his garage, ran his car engine, and died from inhaling carbon monoxide fumes.
From Neapolitan girl of Capri to wife and mother in the New York suburbs, Rosina Ferrara’s life took a fascinating arc. Along the way, she did a lot of modeling, inspiring and . . . dancing. Though works of her have fetched a hefty price at auction at Christie’s, though she settled into a comfortable life in America, I doubt that Rosina ever forgot her youth and innocent roots. In her heart, she was still always the exotic girl who once danced the tarantella on a rooftop in Capri . . .
Rosina Ferrara Dancing the Tarantella, 1878, by John Singer Sargent: