Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804) is best known for his charming images of commedia dell’arte characters and the secular life of Venice. Yet he was also a deeply pious man who created a cycle of 313 large religious drawings, in ink and wash on handmade paper, an ambitious project executed in a relatively short period, between 1786 and 1790. (An interesting parallel might be drawn to the society painter James Jacques Tissot’s The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, in the form of book illustrations, published 1890–1900.) Recently, the Frick Collection in New York City presented “Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament,” a selection of sixty dramatic, beautifully finished drawings from the artist’s largely unpublished and unexhibited narrative. The drawings were sold and scattered soon after Domenico’s death, and this exhibition coincides with the publication of Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament, by Adelheid M. Gealt and George Knox, the monumental catalogue raisonné of the cycle (888 pages, 339 color and 301 black-and-white illustrations, Indiana University Press, $75).
The drawings are all in the same vertical format, 18 by 15 inches, and the use of brown wash, sometimes with black chalk and white gouache, gives them a lovely amber tonality that unifies the series. But the settings and compositional ploys offer a good deal of variety. There are landscapes: lyrical in The Flight into Egypt, after Castiglione, with a picturesque palm; stark and craggy in The Third Temptation of Christ and the emotional Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: The Second Prayer. TheTemple in Jerusalem, given a decidedly classical look, provides a stage set for events such as The Presentation of Mary in the Temple. For The Calling of Matthew, Domenico chooses a contemporary milieu, depicting the tax-collector apostle in a typical Venetian banker’s office. The sheer scope of the project is impressive, although inevitably some of the 313 drawings seem routinely illustrative rather than compelling as individual works of art. Still, Domenico explores unusual areas, tracing not only the life of Jesus but also the backstory of his family and the early ministry of the Church. Much of the source material is apocryphal, as in the twenty-two-drawing arc that begins the series, exploring the story of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. On occasion Domenico went beyond New Testament apocrypha to the medieval Golden Legend, as for Angels Leading Anna Away from Her Home. The delicate, nervous penmanship quickly sketches in the feeble old woman, lightfooted angels, even the plaintive little dog and patient donkey that add charm to the scene. Perhaps the most striking of the drawings mix human characters with angels intervening in earthly affairs. Cloud-borne beings—whether gods, angels or allegorical figures—were a specialty of Domenico’s father and teacher, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770). Domenico’s The Apostles Delivered from Prison is an excellent example of this visual trope. With a checkerboard floor and stonework walls establishing the perspective space, a crisply drawn angel hurtles through a door—wings, drapery and cloud aflutter—pulling one apostle forward while another looks up in wonder. A pair of small dogs, those indispensable props of Venetian art, help ground this supernatural visitation in the real world. Domenico’s piety is undeniable, but these drawings lack the intensity of Rembrandt’s biblical etchings. The worldliness of Venice is pervasive, and divine grace takes buoyant form.The Exaltation of the Sacrament is almost giddy, while The Feast in the House of Simon reminds us of how Veronese ran afoul of the Inquisition for too much secular splendor in his religious scenes. The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, New York10021. Telephone (212) 288-0700. On the Web at www.frick.org