DescriptionGIOVANNI BATTISTA (GIAMBATTISTA) TIEPOLO (Italian 1696 - 1770)
Death of Saint Jerome, circa 1732-35
Oil on canvas
12-5/8 x 17-3/8in.
Giambattista Tiepolo enjoyed an illustrious career as eighteenth-century Italy's foremost painter, and was the last great representative of the grand tradition of Italian art. He worked with equal comfort on grand and intimate scales, in oil paint and fresco, and with secular and religious subject matter, which made him a much sought-after artist not merely in Italy, but in Germany and Spain as well.
A Venetian by birth, Tiepolo trained in the workshop of Gregorio Lazzarini who, despite his own classicizing tendencies, communicated a broad knowledge of different styles to his pupils. From the start Tiepolo gravitated most strongly to the Venetian tradition of dramatic tenebrism that had evolved from the work of Tintoretto to find more contemporary expression in painters such as Giambattista Piazzetta and Giovanni Battista Pittoni. Like them, young Tiepolo composed his figures along prominent diagonals to the picture plane, and activated the entire surface of his paintings with an electric alternation of dark and light passages. But rather than the smoother surfaces of a Piazzetta, young Tiepolo's facture was more fiery, cranky, original, and dynamic. He preferred short choppy brushwork, harsh raking shadows, and brilliantly illuminated angular forms that unapologetically poke out of the darkness. As he matured during the course of the 1720s and early 1730s, Tiepolo began exploring Veronese's brand of Venetian painting, which was experiencing a strong revival. Soaring color in a more highly keyed blond palette was paired with a new sense of theatrical narrative. Each figure in the composition became a character in a performance, in either a title or a supporting role. The exquisite chromatic relationships of this new palette featuring golds and lavenders, sea-foam and grassy greens and cerulean blues lightened the effect of the performance, even when it had a profoundly serious and meditative subject, such as the present scene of the Death of St. Jerome. This exquisite oil painting by Tiepolo combines the tenebrism and choppy brushwork of his early phase, with his emerging interest in the chromatic experiments of Veronese, and as such, can be dated to the early 1730s, while he was engaged in painting stories from the life of John the Baptist for the Colleoni Chapel in the cathedral at Bergamo.
Tiepolo's contemporary admirers and present-day enthusiasts have consistently marveled that Tiepolo's virtuosity as a painter is equally matched by his brilliance as a draftsman both in chalk and in pen and wash. In the present work, he seems in fact to be both drawing and painting at the same time with an enviable fluidity. Such an approach speaks volumes about the ease with which he was able to visualize the human form in three dimensions, and spin the figures around in space in the manner of a sculptor. One need only examine the semicircle of angels hovering above the figure of St. Jerome to see how convincing his figure drawing abilities were. (A pen, ink, and wash sketch described as Death of St. Onophrius? by Giambattista Tiepolo in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward M.M. Warburg, inv. no. 1961.171, shows what might have been an alternate arrangement for the present Death of St. Jerome composition, showing the saint lying perpendicular to rather than roughly parallel with the picture plane.) Owing to his facility and speed, Tiepolo was a superb choice for patrons interested in fresco work. Over the course of his career, he received some of the most ambitious and highly lucrative large-scale decorative commissions of eighteenth-century Europe. Apart from his numerous masterpieces in Italy, Tiepolo was awarded the opportunity to decorate the largest ceiling in Europe, the Bishop of Würzburg's Residenz in Germany, as well as decorations for the vaults of several rooms in the Palacio Real for King Carlos II of Spain.
Magnificent as these grand commissions are, it is the small scale religious pictures in oil, such as the present Death of St. Jerome, that today are prized among the Venetian's most original and penetrating efforts. It is to this group of intensely personal images, full of sincere pathos in their depictions of the quiet moments from the life of Christ, and scenes from the lives of the saints (Francis, Jerome, John the Baptist, and others) that the present work belongs.
In Tiepolo's presentation of the subject of the death of the early medieval scholar-saint, St. Jerome (lived 347-419) lies in the foreground, stretched out on a piece of matting with rocky slabs of an indefinite landscape littering the ground indiscriminately. This presentation suggests the type of uncomfortable, inhospitable place where Jerome had spent much of his life as a hermit in prayer and penitence. Beside him are many of his attributes including a skull, the cross, a well-thumbed book of the Holy Scriptures (he was responsible for the first good Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate), and a rosary wrapped around his skinny forearm. Far to the right is a tall thin cross which towers over his immediate surrounding as his death approaches. Seven angels suspended in a semi-circle are weeping above him.
Tiepolo was a master of any type of figure, young, old, thin, obese, noble, common, radiant, sickly, male or female. Nonetheless, he seemed to have relished painting the wrinkled and worn skin of age, the stoop, the scraggy white beard and the sunken features of figures such as St. Jerome, for there are many in his oeuvre. A drawing in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. is a fine example from the same period, which shows obvious debts to the work of Piazzetta (Saint Jerome in the Desert Listening to the Angels, 1728-1735, pen and brown ink with brown wash over black chalk, heightened with white, on laid paper, 42.5 x 27.8 cm [16 3/4 x 10 5/16 in.], The Armand Hammer Collection [1991.217.9].
In the present work, Tiepolo's raking light and long shadows serve to emphasize the saint's old emaciated body, worn out from a lifelong habit of fasting. His ashen-colored face with its half-open mouth is wonderfully expressive as are the quickly worked gestures and faces of mourning angels who seem to be constantly shifting their positions as they grieve.
The present painting is one of two known versions of this composition by Giambattista Tiepolo which are roughly the same size. The other, in the collection of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan since 1934, is slightly more elaborate of the two both in terms of finish and in its smoother and brighter articulation of the landscape in the background. (See Guido Gregorietti et al, Il Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, 1972, p. 267, fig. 494, ill. black and white.) While the two paintings are quite close in composition, the present work is more freely and spontaneously painted, particularly in the grouping of angels, in the profile of the hillside at the right, and in the face and body of St. Jerome. In the present work, there is a greater sense of movement and urgency in the brushwork which suggests it was the preliminary version of the composition.
Scholars consider the work in Milan to be the pendant to another scene from St. Jerome's life, The Last Communion of St. Jerome in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, which is the same size (13 x 14.4 in.), and also has the same two-tiered arrangement of motifs.
Although the subjects of the Death and Last Communion St. Jerome may have been a commission, it is just as likely that the artist painted the subject without a specific patron in mind. St. Jerome, an important figure in the history of the church as well as a colorful personality, was someone who was quite driven and relentless in his desire to engage with his age, and gain a clearer understanding of the word of God. His life was full of political intrigue and his tenacious scholarly efforts to produce a good Latin translation of the Bible (his Vulgate, the result of 30 years of work, is still in use) may have held special appeal to Tiepolo, an artist who through his own high degree of self-discipline and sense of artistic purpose, left behind an enormous body of outstanding painting as well as a distinguished legacy which his sons Giovanni Domenico and Lorenzo carried on after him.
Estimate: $300,000 - $400,000.
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