press release

Venetian painter Giambattista (Giovanni Battista) Tiepolo (1696–1770) was one of the most imaginative artists of 18th-century Europe. This exhibition, which centers on 11 loans from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, focuses on his oil sketches—small, rapidly executed paintings usually made in preparation for larger compositions. Most artists began large compositions by drawing, but Tiepolo laid down his initial ideas by sketching in oil. This allowed him to test ideas and present his concepts to patrons. Tiepolo's sketches show a skillful handling of paint, inventive storytelling, and imaginative use of color and light.

Tiepolo is best known for his spectacular illusionistic frescoes on the walls and ceilings of churches, palaces, and villas. The Holy House flies across the heavens in the ceiling sketch above, which depicts angels transporting the Virgin Mary's home from Palestine to Loreto, Italy, in the 1290s. Tiepolo painted this event for a church in Venice, creating the illusion that the church's ceiling is open to the sky.

In the sketch at left, Mercury and Minerva, the gods of reason and wisdom, are surrounded by depictions of four myths on the power of eloquence. On the left, the music of Amphion charms bricks into flying through the air (see detail). At the top, Orpheus brings Eurydice back from the dead after having moved the god of the underworld with his music (see detail). At right, Hercules drags his listeners by chains attached to their ears (see detail). At bottom, the Greek hero Bellerophon and his winged horse Pegasus attack the monstrous chimera, a triumph of culture over barbarism (see detail).

Debate raged in 18th-century Italy between advocates of popular emotional spirituality and supporters of a more moderate, rational religious practice. Tiepolo was attuned to these debates, and he adjusted his approach to his altarpieces based on his patrons' needs. This altarpiece depicts Saint Agatha, a third-century Christian who was tortured for her faith, her breasts twisted and severed. The work gains its power from the beautiful way Tiepolo painted such a horrific subject, including the sophisticated play of reds in the center of the canvas.

The subject of this painting, Luigi Gonzaga, renounced his large inheritance and devoted himself to nursing plague victims. He died at age 23 and immediately became a popular religious figure. Tiepolo presented the young man in religious ecstasy, but balanced the mystical quality of Gonzaga's vision by focusing on the saint's devotion to the Eucharist (the shining object held aloft by putti), the embodiment of Christ during the sacrament of Communion.

Late in his career Tiepolo painted seven altarpieces for the church of San Pascual Baylon in Aranjuez, Spain. Their simple, severe compositions reflect a rational spirituality influenced by the Enlightenment. Saint Pascal Baylon was a Spanish shepherd who devoted his life to solitary contemplation and acts of charity. He developed a devotion to the Eucharist and experienced mystic visions. In this sketch Tiepolo shows Pascal Baylon standing in a church garden, emphasizing the reality of his spiritual experience.

Here Tiepolo depicted the Immaculate Conception, the belief that the Virgin Mary was born free of Original Sin. The rose and mirror are traditional symbols of Mary's purity. The crown of stars, crescent moon, and serpent with an apple refer to the Woman of the Apocalypse from Revelation 12 who triumphs over Eve's Original Sin to become the pure vessel of Christ. Like the other works in this exhibition, this oil sketch combines inventiveness, visual delight, and bravura technique.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Center, Museum, North Pavilion.


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For Your Approval: Oil Sketches by Tiepolo
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo