This canvas and three others like it survive from a decorative ensemble: a second work is also in the Metropolitan Museum (1997.117.8) and the other two are in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. As the figures are seen from below, the ovals probably were installed above doors or some other architectural focal point of a room in a Venetian palace. Painted shadows fall to the right of the figures in this work and one of the Rijksmuseum ovals, and to the left in the other two. This suggests that Tiepolo took note of the fall of light, probably from a single window, in the original setting and that the two pairs of ovals faced each other on opposite walls of a room. Because of the generic character of the objects the figures carry, it is difficult to establish precisely what they symbolize.
The two works in Amsterdam were formerly catalogued by the Rijksmuseum as works by Domenico Tiepolo, an attribution that was corrected when Antonio Morassi recognized the second MMA canvas as the work of Giovanni Battista (see Antonio Morassi, G. B. Tiepolo: His Life and Work [London, 1955], fig. 55). There is less agreement about the dating of the series, which, however, was probably executed in the early 1740s. Not only is the fluid handling of the figures in the ovals comparable to that of documented works of 1743, such as the frescoes in the Villa Cordellina at Montecchio or the lateral canvases of the ceiling of the Scuola del Carmine in Venice, but only in this period did Tiepolo have a penchant for single figures in monochrome on gold backgrounds, as in the Four Seasons on the pendentives of one of the ceilings in the Palazzo Papadopoli, Venice, which he decorated in 1741, or in the Four Continents on the ceiling of the main hall of the Villa Cordellina, which he mentioned in a letter of October 26, 1743 (see Gino Fogolari, "Giambattista Tiepolo: lettere inedite a Francesco Algarotti," Nuova antologia 7 [September 1942], p. 34).
The traditional provenance from the Palazzo Labia, Venice, has been disproved (see Aikema 1996, p. 158; and Elizabetta Martinelli Pedrocco in Palazzo Labia a Venezia, Turin, 1982, p. 232). It is possible, however, that the four ovals were part of the decoration of the Palazzo Cornaro, on the campo San Polo in Venice. In the late 1730s and early 1740s, the Cornaro family remodeled their Renaissance palace, and for the new Sala degli Specchi, Tiepolo painted the canvases of the story of Rinaldo and Armida, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. In an eighteenth-century inventory of the palace, Tiepolo’s paintings in the Sala degli Specchi included “quattro sopraporte di chiaro scuro bassorilievo” (four overdoors imitating monochrome relief), a description that suits the four Allegorical Figures (see Giandomenico Romanelli in Giambattista Tiepolo nel terzo centenario della nascita: atti del convegno internazionale di studi, ed. Lionello Puppi [Padua, 1998], vol. 1, p. 222; and Christiansen 1997). On stylistic grounds the Chicago canvases are dated about 1742–45, which coincides with the probable date of the ovals.
At some point in the nineteenth century, the Palazzo Cornaro was modernized, and all the paintings on canvas were dispersed. The fate of the four ovals during this period is not known. Morassi’s statement that they were among the nineteen Tiepolos that Waagen saw in the mid-nineteenth century in the collection of Edward Cheney can be discounted (see G. F. Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain, London, 1857, p. 173). According to Waagen, Cheney’s pictures were “sketches for ceilings” (not single figures), and none of the Tiepolos in the sale of Cheney’s collection (Christie's, London, April 29, 1885, nos. 158–70) corresponds to the Allegorical Figures.
[2011; adapted from Fahy 2005]