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Ten fantasy portraits by Tiepolo shown publicly for the first time at Fundación Juan March
A man walks in front of oil paintings (From L-R) 'Portrait of men with turban', 'Portrait of man with a beard', 'Portrait of young lady with fruits' and 'Portrait of young lady with a red bow in the head' that form part of the exhibition 'Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), ten fantasy portraits' at Juan March Foundation in Madrid, Spain, 31 January 2012. The exhibition runs from 01 February to 04 March 2012. EPA/JUANJO MARTIN.

MADRID.- With the aim of offering, together with our larger exhibitions dedicated to specific artists and movements, select smaller–scale shows, the Fundación Juan March presents Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727–1804). Giandomenico was the brother of Lorenzo Tiepolo, and both were the sons of Giambattista Tiepolo, the patriarch of their artistic dynasty, the “Tiepolo factory”, in the words of Andrés Úbeda. The three artists had moved to Madrid in 1762, where their principal task was the creation of decorative frescoes on various ceilings in the Royal Palace.

These ten paintings of great beauty, all of which are from a private collection, were in all likelihood conceived of as a series, given their stylistic unity, their identical size, and the similarity in the figures’ dress and poses. They represent ten heads: two old, bearded men with an eastern air; and eight beautiful young women. They can all be dated to around 1768, during the artist’s Spanish period. Strictly speaking, they are not true portraits; rather, these figures, wearing different adornments and striking various poses, do not represent real individuals but generic types with the characteristic features and attributes of a certain social, economic and intellectual group. Thus, the male portraits present their models in the manner of philosophers, wise, honorable men from an imagined Antiquity, while the portraits of young women, characterized by carefree and innocent charm, would seem to reflect an ideal paradigm of feminine beauty. Both types belong to a long and fruitful tradition in Venice: a genre that conjures up a world of the imagination whose roots are to be found in the seventeenth century, a type of painting whose master par excellence was Rembrandt himself.

The exhibition is completed with a book, Eight women and two men, with essays by Andrés Úbeda de los Cobos, Chief Curator of Italian and French Painting in the Museo Nacional del Prado, which shed light on the historical and aesthetic contexts of these mysterious, little–known works, “one of the least studied chapters in the history of this dynasty of artists,” and never before exhibited in public.

The series of portraits brought together in this exhibition is composed of ten paintings: two images of bearded men in eastern dress and eight images of young women. They all share the same dimensions, sixty by fifty centimeters, which is the most common format of works of this sort in Giandomenico’s oeuvre. Nothing is known about certain fundamental aspects of these works, such as the identity of their first owner, how they were arranged in the owner’s residence or the impact they had on Tiepolo’s contemporaries. The earliest information about them places the paintings in a private collection in El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz), from whence they came into the possession of their current owners, probably after the Spanish Civil War. Proof of the interest they inspired are the two copies of the Portrait of a Woman with a Drum in the Museo de Cádiz, thought to be originals by Giandomenico until the 1950s, and the copy of the Portrait of a Man with a Turban, which was previously in the Lázaro Galdiano collection and whose current whereabouts are unknown. The fantasy portraits represent one of the least studied chapters in the story of this dynasty of artists, undoubtedly because of the difficulties in attributing the surviving works to each member of the Tiepolo family and to their many imitators.

There is indirect evidence to suppose that the fantasy portraits enjoyed considerable success. A large number of them have survived to the present, though, unfortunately (as with the series in this exhibition), very little is known about the identity of their first owners.

The chronology of their execution is also not known, though on this point all the specialists in the work of Giandomenico have reached a rare agreement, namely that all the paintings belong to his Spanish period, from 1762 to 1770. Entire sets of these paintings by Giandomenico have survived intact, though they are the exception: the majority of the paintings are now held individually in separate collections. Thus, in addition to the set in this exhibition, there is another set of four magnificent heads of old men in the collection of the Marquis of Perinat (Madrid) and another set housed in the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid. The latter is more relevant to the set in this exhibition, for it includes one painting of a bearded old man and four of young women.

The available information about these paintings is so scant that it proves difficult to answer even the most obvious questions. We do not know, for example, if Tiepolo created a standard gallery model; if that was the case, we cannot know how many paintings might have comprised it. It is also pointless to speculate whether he typically combined old bearded men with young women, as in the case of the present set. It is also entirely possible that in some of these sets there were portraits of young men, for examples of individual paintings of this sort have survived. So have images of young women in eastern dress; surviving examples of such works (some of which are very mediocre) are perhaps copies of originals by Tiepolo since lost.

Strictly speaking they are not “portraits,” that is, images that represent the physical appearance of a specific individual, but rather they are “types” or generic models that do not evoke any person in particular, instead manifesting characteristics associated with a certain socioeconomic or intellectual group—in this case, the stern, concentrated gaze of old, bearded men that conjure up the idea of philosophers or venerable elders of a dreamed-of Antiquity; or the innocent, carefree spirit of young women surrounded by flowers or musical instruments in a likely effort at representing an ideal of feminine beauty. Attempts have been made to link one or another of the male portraits to historical personages, though they are not very persuasive. The numerous surviving copies and the difficulty of correctly attributing them to the various members of the family of artists are testimony of Giandomenico’s success with this genre.

On 4 June 1762, Giambattista Tiepolo (Venice, 5 March 1696 – Madrid, 27 March 1770) arrived in Madrid with the commission to paint frescoes on the ceiling of the Royal Palace. His original intentions were to return to his native city upon concluding the project, but he managed to string together a series of subsequent commissions in Spain until his death in 1770. Accompanying him on this voyage were his two sons, Giandomenico (Venice, 30 August 1727 – 3 March 1804) and Lorenzo, who, like his father, ended his days in Spain (Venice, 8 August 1736 – Somosaguas, Madrid, 2 May 1776). Both collaborated with their father Giambattista until his death, a fact that has probably contributed significantly to scholars’ difficulties in recognizing the sons’ talent and creative autonomy. Giandomenico, to whose work this catalogue is devoted, achieved that recognition first, in 1941, when the Italian historian Antonio Morassi perceived Giandomenico’s hand in the frescoes in the Villa Valmarana ai Nani in Vicenza (1757). His reputation was definitively restored in 1971, with the publication of an authoritative catalogue by Adriano Mariuz, who is undeniably, together with George Knox, primarily responsible for the current awareness and appreciation of the artist. Lorenzo’s path toward general recognition has been longer and more difficult, perhaps because of his dedication to the medium of pastels, a technique that still suffers unjustifiably from critical neglect. The fact that the museums that own pastels by Lorenzo rarely exhibit them, due to their extremely delicate state of conservation, is not unrelated. Only the exhibition devoted to Lorenzo at the Museo del Prado en 1999 gave a fleeting view of his talent and his vigorous artistic personality.

Giambattista is the most familiar member of the artistic dynasty, its patriarch and the one responsible for developing a style of painting characterized by a markedly individual approach to color and decorative sense, vindicating the elegance and monumentality of Veronese, whom he acknowledged as his artistic forebear. He was an ambitious painter in personal and professional terms.

In his most celebrated works, fresco mural cycles, he executed complex compositions filled with mythological, historical and allegorical figures. In these projects, his two sons were active collaborators whom he had purposefully trained to faithfully imitate his own style and approach, so that their contributions to the murals were harmoniously integrated in what their father had produced.

In fact, the artistic relationship in which the sons’ work was subject to Giambattista’s models can only be truly observed in their period of training during the 1740s, when Giandomenico copied drawings by Giambattista and sketched some of his works in oil and fresco. Precisely because of their imitative character, the attribution of many of these works is subject to persistent debate among scholars specializing in the Tiepolos. In 1750, the entire family moved to Würzburg, accepting the invitation from the Prince-Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau to decorate the Imperial Hall of the Würzburg Residence with frescoes. Two years later he undertook the decoration of the great staircase, the masterwork of the Tiepolo “factory,” for which Giandomenico worked shoulder to shoulder with his father. It is precisely there where for the first time he defined the characteristics of his own painting and where he assumed responsibilities beyond simply filling in for his father, following his lead, for instance in the decorations above the lintel portraying the emperor Justinian, which Giandomenico signed with his own name, proudly adding his age, twenty-three.

The distance separating the artistic sensibilities of Giambattista and Giandomenico is apparent in the decorations of the Villa Valmarana. There, Giandomenico was fortunate to have found a client who would allow him to represent his own pictorial universe, and the result is one of the most fascinating groups of murals of the entire eighteenth century. In the Foresteria, or guest house, Giandomenico’s imaginative individuality achieved the most surprising heights of artistic freedom, giving life to a world in which decorative scenes of Chinese figures coexist with elegant ladies strolling in gardens and peasants captured in the midst of their daily activities, represented in a strikingly realistic manner. Alongside these frescoes, Giambattista’s own in the Villa seem somewhat routine, with their theatrical scenes taken from tales of classical antiquity and episodes from Ariosto and Tasso.

During the eight years he spent in Madrid, Giandomenico’s output went in two fundamental directions. On the one hand, he made an important contribution to the decoration of the new Royal Palace in Madrid, first as his father’s assistant in execution of the Throne Room fresco and later as the artist responsible for the decoration of seven other halls, two large ones and five small ones, work he carried out between 1763 and 1765. Also from his Spanish period are some of his most famous works in oils, which reveal a surprisingly Venetian character. These include The Burchiello, now in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem in Vienna, and The Departure of the Gondola in the Wrightsman collection in New York. In Spain also he painted the majority, if not all, of the heads of philosophers and young women that are the focus of this exhibition.

Regrettably, we lack information about the clientele and the reception of paintings that were so unlike what was typically sought after in the Madrid art market. It is possible that the buyers for these paintings were members of the Italian colony there, including the ambassador from the Republic of Venice himself, Sebastiano Foscarini Alvise, in whose residence the Tiepolos stayed when they arrived in Madrid. They also enjoyed relations with personalities like the well-to-do Genovese bookseller Angelo Corradi, whose daughter married Lorenzo Tiepolo; and the mirror merchant and nobleman from Padua known in Spain as Joseph Casina, who accompanied the Tiepolos on their journey to Madrid. There is reason to believe that the family’s artistic creations also enjoyed a favorable reputation among Spanish collectors whose identities are, however, unknown.

When his father died in 1770, and unlike his brother Lorenzo, who decided to continue on in Spain, Giandomenico left Madrid for Venice, where he was living once again already by 12 November that same year. In Venice, he continued to work for a Spanish clientele, specifically for the clerks regular of the church of San Felipe Neri in Madrid, for which between 1771 and 1772 he executed a series of eight paintings of the Passion, currently housed at the Museo del Prado. Critics have not taken a particularly flattering view of this series nor, in general, of Giandomenico’s output upon his return to Italy, where he confronted a new artistic panorama that already announced the end of the exuberant world of the Tiepolos, which would be supplanted by that of the advocates of a return to Greco-Roman ideals of beauty.

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