In Love with Light

Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770

Exhibition at the Ca' Rezzonico, Venice, September 5-December 9, 1996 and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, January 24-April 27, 1997

Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770

Catalog of the exhibition, edited by Keith Christiansen
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 398 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Der Himmel auf Erden: Tiepolo in Würzburg February 15-May 19, 1996

Exhibition at the Prince-Bishop's Residenz, Würzburg, Germany

Heaven on Earth: Tiepolo: Masterpieces of the Würzburg Years

by Peter O. Krückmann
Prestel, 144 pp., $39.95 (paper)

Tiepolo and His Circle: Drawings in American Collections

by Bernard Aikema, translated by Andrew McCormick
Catalog of the exhibition at the Harvard University Art Museums and the Pierpont Morgan Library, Harvard University Art Museums/Pierpont Morgan Library, 345 pp., $39.95 (paper)


When in 1770 the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo died, very suddenly, in Madrid (to which he had been summoned to fresco the royal palace), he was already aged seventy-four, and he must certainly have realized that he had been, for at least a generation or so, the most admired Italian painter of his time. But he could not possibly have foreseen the two factors that were to weigh most heavily with posterity in appraising the nature of his genius: in the first place, within less than thirty years it would be evident that the Europe that had acclaimed him with such enthusiasm had vanished forever; and secondly, as the decades succeeded each other thereafter, it would become ever more apparent that he was to be the very last Italian painter to make a major impact on the art and taste of the world.

So obvious, so startling, and so enduring has been the impact of these two circumstances that, right up to our own day, it has proved to be almost impossible for any commentator to avoid taking account of them (though not always consciously) when trying to estimate his achievement. This is so despite the fact that neither could have been of any relevance to that achievement. On balance, it seems likely that his posthumous reputation has benefited from this state of affairs, because in most spheres of creative life it is an advantage to be considered exceptional rather than typical, even in matters of decadence and corruption, and also because some kind of glamour invariably attaches itself to the last of anything.

In fact, Tiepolo’s reputation has always stood somewhat higher than might have been expected, although admittedly it remained within fairly narrow confines for about a hundred years following his death. He hardly ever attracted the venomous scorn that, even in his lifetime and for long afterward, was to be poured on his slightly younger French contemporary Boucher, who was accused of representing a serious threat to the national tradition, and he was consistently admired by a long series of discriminating artists and critics. One of the keenest of these was the very man who was to be acclaimed as having broken with the recent past so as to inaugurate a completely new era in Italian art—the “neo-classical” sculptor, Antonio Canova, who ardently collected drawings and sketches by Tiepolo. Many of the Romantics—including Delacroix—thought highly of him, and during the period of the Second Empire, his very weaknesses pleaded in his favor: “charmant peintre, grand maître de la décadence,” rhapsodized Gauthier in 1851, and nearly two decades later another French critic wrote that

Tiepolo, the last Venetian, is not a master: he has neither the deep soul nor the strict self-discipline [science sévère] of the great painters who preceded him. But what an admirable decadent! What verve and what fire! What grace and richness in his compositions!

A few years later still Jean-Louis Forain’s comparison of Tiepolo to the fashionable designer of posters…

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