A Female Allegorical Figure

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venice 1696–1770 Madrid)
ca. 1740–50
Oil on canvas, gold ground
Oval, 32 x 24 7/8 in. (81.3 x 63.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1984
Accession Number:
Not on view
This picture is from a series of four female allegorical figures. Two others are in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. They probably served as overdoors, perhaps set into a stucco surround. Tiepolo is known to have painted a number of pictures of this type to complement his work in fresco. The allegorical figure has not been identified.
This oval canvas, its pendant (1997.117.8), and two others in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, formed a set. 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, suggesting that Tiepolo took note of the fall of light in the original setting. Because of the generic character of the objects the figures carry, it is difficult to establish precisely what they symbolize and whether, indeed, they are meant as allegorical figures. The two in Amsterdam have occasionally been identified as Fortitude (with a club) and Prudence, while those in the Metropolitan, both of which have vases, might be thought to show Temperance (see Aikema 1996 and Favilla and Rugolo 2012). It is, however, equally likely that the figures were intended not as allegories but as capricci—works intended primarily as decorative accouterments that made a conscious play with other pictorial elements in the room. This would be very much in keeping with Tiepolo’s interest in the theme of artistic invention that he explored in his etchings during the 1740s.

The two ovals in Amsterdam were formerly catalogued by the Rijksmuseum as works by Domenico Tiepolo—an attribution corrected by Antonio Morassi (G. B. Tiepolo: His Life and Work, London, 1955, fig. 55)—and were erroneously reported to have come from the Palazzo Labia, Venice (see Aikema 1996; and Elisabetta Martinelli Pedrocco in Palazzo Labia a Venezia, Turin, 1982, p. 232). A more likely provenance, from the Palazzo Cornaro on the Campo San Polo, is suggested by Romanelli’s (1998) discovery of an eighteenth-century inventory. His idea has been further explored in a detailed study by Favilla and Rugolo (2012), who have put the study on a firmer, documentary basis. If their proposed reconstruction is correct, the four ovals formed part of the decoration of a modest-sized room on the second floor of the Palazzo Cornaro. The palace had been designed in the sixteenth century by Michele Sanmichele, but in preparation for a marriage its interior was redecorated between 1736 and 1747. Payments for work in the second floor Sala degli Specchi run from 1741 to 1743, with Girolamo Mengozzi Colona—Tiepolo’s frequent collaborator—paid on September 24, 1741 for the fresco decoration to surround a ceiling painting by Tiepolo (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) for which payment had been made on July 2. The walls of the room were decorated with woodwork by Antonio Gai, with mirrors (whence the name of the room), and, according to the eighteenth-century inventory published by Romanelli, four rectangular canvases with figural compositions derived from Tasso ("Quattro pezzi di quadro bislunghi rappresentanti figure del Tasso—del Tiepolo") and four monochrome canvases simulating bas reliefs over the doors ("Quattro sopraporte di chiaro scuro basso rilievo—del Tiepolo"). When he published the eighteenth-century inventory, Romanelli suggested that the four canvases with subjects taken from Tasso should be identified with the large canvases of stories of Rinaldo and Armida—characters in Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem delivered, of 1580)—now in the Art Institute of Chicago. This thesis has been disproven by the further documentation published by Favilla and Rugolo. According to their reconstruction, the "bislunghi" canvases can more plausibly be identified with a series of narrow, upright pictures in the National Gallery, London, showing, as indicated in the inventory, "figures" taken from Tasso’s poem. Three of these canvases have a light source from the right and one from the left, which partly conflicts with the lighting in the series of ovals (two lit from the right and two from the left). Whether this is sufficient evidence for excluding the ovals as part of the reconstructed cycle seems unclear, especially since the vases that are a conspicuous feature of the MMA canvases relate to motifs in the main pictures. Based in part on incorrect dimensions and in part on the duplication of the supposed attribute of the figure (a vase), Favilla and Rugolo had eliminated MMA 1997.117.8 from the set. As already noted, it is far from clear that any of the figures were intended as allegorical, and on balance the group is consistent in style.

At some point between 1828 and 1847 the paintings in the room were dismantled. The fate of the four ovals during this period is not known. Morassi’s (1962) 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.

[Keith Christiansen 2014]
Baroness Renée de Becker, New York (sold to Rosenberg & Stiebel); [Rosenberg & Stiebel, New York, until 1958; sold to Balsan]; Mrs. Jacques Balsan, New York (1958–d. 1964); sale, Christie's, London, June 23, 1967, no. 71, for £5,500 to Agnew for Wrightsman; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1967–84)

Antonio Morassi. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G. B. Tiepolo. London, 1962, pp. 1, 34, 70, considers this work part of a series of four which he dates about 1740–50; wrongly associates them with some oil sketches seen by Waagen ("Art Treasures," vol. 4, 1857, p. 173) in the Cheney collection.

Highly Important Pictures by Old Masters. Christie's, New York. June 23, 1967, pp. 58–59, no. 71, ill., discusses the provenance and mentions the artist's wife, Cecilia Tiepolo, as a former owner.

Anna Pallucchini in L'opera completa di Giambattista Tiepolo. Milan, 1968, p. 121, no. 228, fig. 228 D, associates it with the series seen by Waagen in the Cheney collection; dates the series about 1755, noting that the agility of execution suggests a date after Würzburg; points out that Morassi, in the 1955 edition of his book, dates the Heinemann picture (now The Met, 1997.117.8) 1750–60.

Mercedes Precerutti Garberi. Affreschi settecenteschi delle ville venete. Milan, 1968, p. 141 [English ed., "Frescoes from Venetian Villas," London, 1971, p. 127], repeats Morassi's (1962) confusion with the series in the Cheney collection; relates the four pictures to a similar series of four ovals of allegorical figures attributed to Giovanni Battista's workshop (MMA 43.85.21–24).

All the Paintings of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Amsterdam, 1976, p. 538.

Bernard Aikema in Tiepolo in Holland: Works by Giambattista Tiepolo and His Circle in Dutch Collections. Exh. cat., Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam, 1996, p. 158, under no. 66, observes that the figures probably depict Virtues, but their exact identity is unclear, although this figure with the urn may represent Temperance; dates them about 1750 and discusses their provenance.

Bernard Aikema in Italian Paintings from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Dutch Public Collections. Florence, 1997, p. 159–61 n. 11, under no. 182.

Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 1996–1997." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 55 (Fall 1997), p. 41, finds the attributes of the figures too general to allow specific identification; observes that an inventory soon to be published (Romanelli 1998) includes a group of overdoors described as "chiaroscuro bas-reliefs" that formed part of Tiepolo's cycle of decoration for the Cornaro Palace, San Polo, Venice; suggests a date somewhat earlier than 1750.

Giandomenico Romanelli. "Giambattista Tiepolo e i Cornaro di San Polo." Giambattista Tiepolo nel terzo centenario della nascita. Ed. Lionello Puppi. Padua, 1998, vol. 1, p. 222, publishes an eighteenth-century inventory of the palazzo Cornaro that includes, in the sala degli specchi, "Quattro sopraporte di chiaro scuro bassorilievo. Del Tiepolo".

Everett Fahy in The Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 90–93, no. 26, ill. (color), identifies the series with the four chiaroscuro bas-relief overdoors from the Sala degli Specchi in the Palazzo Cornaro mentioned in an eighteenth-century inventory; dates them about 1742–45.

Massimo Favilla and Ruggero Rugolo. "Lo specchio di Armida: Giambattista Tiepolo per i Corner di San Polo." Arte veneta 69 (2012), p.83, figs. 22, 26 (color), reconstruct the sala degli specchi in the Palazzo Cornaro, publishing documents relating to the decoration and dismantling, and demonstrating that the principal canvases by Tiepolo decorating the room were four paintings in the National Gallery, London, a ceiling in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and possibly the ovals in the Rijksmuseum and the MMA (mistakenly excluding 1997.117.8, based on the incorrect dimensions given in Fahy 2005).