The 10 ‘Fantasy Portraits’ that lift the lid on an Italian artistic dynasty

Giandomenico Tiepolo’s revealing series goes on show for first time in Madrid

A portrait of a young woman holding flowers and a hankerchief from the 'Ten Fantasy Portraits' exhibition
A portrait of a young woman holding flowers and a hankerchief from the 'Ten Fantasy Portraits' exhibition

If, like the Italian writer Roberto Calasso once held, Tiepolo was “the last gust of joy in Europe,” now may be the right time to pay a visit to a delicate little exhibition that has just opened at Madrid’s Juan March Foundation — the gusts of joy blowing in from the continent seem all but petrified at the moment.

True, Calasso was referring to Giambattista Tiepolo, the patriarch of a family of 18th-century Venetian painters and a man with a clear liking for Spain who created the frescos at the Royal Palace — it was in fact his son Giandomenico (1727-1804) who painted the 10 “Fantasy Portraits” that hang from the Juan March Foundation’s recently padded walls (in a successful effort to emulate the ambiance of a cabinet of the era). Still, the small artworks, which are now on show for the first time, were made during the period of greatest paternal influence, following the call of the court of Charles III in 1762.

Giandomenico painted this series of portraits during their stay in Madrid — which, in the father’s case, was the final stay, since Giambattista died there in 1770. Dated around 1768, they depict eight beautiful young women and two bearded men of a certain age.

From his father, Giandomenico “took aspects that were vital to his career,” writes Andrés Úbeda de Cobos, chief curator of Italian and French painting at the Prado Museum, in the exhibition catalogue. De Cobos notes “the oleaginous nature of his paintings, his earthy colors, their decorative, remotely Veronese aspect, and most fundamentally, his universe of human types blending the real with the fantastic, and filled with Easterners, Gypsies, charlatans, tooth-pullers, snake oil salesmen, peasant women, soldiers, odd-looking masses performing carnavalesque dances, vagrants and busybodies who waste their time on the first distraction they come across.”

In the series at hand, little is known about the identity or origins of the models (save one, who is thought to be Anna Maria, the artist’s sister). The rest are widely viewed as archetypes of innocence, virtue, rigor or exoticism. Be that as it may, the group of paintings as a whole sheds light on one of the least-known aspects of the Tiepolo family’s pictorial production, given the difficulty of attributing the works to each individual member of the family saga, and compounded by the confusion created by a legion of imitators.

Little is known about the history of the series of paintings now on display for the first time. Nobody knows the name of their first buyer. The first recorded news about them places the artworks in a private collection in Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz. From there, perhaps after the Civil War, they moved on to their next owners, who have loaned them out for the show.

Besides their pictorial interest, the paintings create a breach in the foundation’s exhibition program by introducing older art in a schedule filled with modern and contemporary creations. The timeframe is also different — no more than a month, rather than the usual long-running shows.

Giandomenico Tiepolo. Diez retratos de fantasía. Until March 4 at Fundación Juan March, C/ Castelló 77, Madrid.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS