Rosina Ferrara (1861-1934) was the muse of the 19th-century painter John Singer Sargent. She lived on the small island of Capri, which is a 4-square-mile bit of land just south of the Bay of Naples. Sargent, who was born to American parents in Florence, Italy, painted no fewer than ten separate paintings featuring Rosina, and it’s easy to see why she so captivated the artist: she is beautiful in every sense of the word, from her dark features, to her slender figure, to her apparently natural, whimsical grace.
This painting in particular (1876) reminds me of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, that infamous and intangible figure to whom the Bard supposedly addressed many of his sonnets. Notice especially the way her hair falls in her face, obscuring her features just enough so that we perceive the general shape of of her full cheekbones, robust lips, and perfectly curved chin, which itself disappears into her equally flawless neck. We do not, however, get a clear vision of her facial features: we see only one eye–and that is shaded; her nose is also concealed in shadow, though we do see enough of it to appreciate its pulchritude; the left side of her face is completely hidden from our eyes. This undoubtedly makes Sargent’s portrait all the more appealing, for it requires us to stare at her and try to imagine what she would look like if only she would reach up momentarily and pull her hair back. I find her half-hidden visage it was most likens her to Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, for we can see her natural beauty easily enough, but her identity proper is maddeningly hidden.
But Rosina’s face is not the only aspect of this painting that draws our attention: notice, too, the wild earrings dangling blithely from her hair-enshrouded lobethe way in which her shoulder blades flawlessly create a valley in the midst of her back; the way she is carelessly holding a string of garlic cloves over her back, making us believe she is simply walking home from the market, just as she would on any other day; the way her left hand is resting playfully on her hips, which themselves are visibly round despite being hidden beneath the flow of her dress. Rosina’s concealed face, though enigmatic by itself, is simply the keystone that holds the rest of this otherwise breathtakingly beautiful work of art together.