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Lorenzo Tiepolo in Madrid

26 February 2017

tiepolo-lorenzo-guitarrista-y-mujer-joven-prado-copyA few weeks ago a kind reader in Spain alerted me to a once-in-a-generation opportunity to view the great collection of extraordinary pastels by Lorenzo Tiepolo which are currently on show in Madrid, and yesterday I went to see them. Although the full significance of pictures like these can often take some time to digest, I thought it best to put this post up now so that you too can see them before the end of March when the exhibition closes.

I wish I could say that flying to a European capital was a pleasure. That you can do it and back in a day seems from an eighteenth century perspective a miracle; but when it was actually easier and quicker thirty years ago when I regularly flew for business, it seems that progress has lost the inevitability about which the Enlightenment fantasised. And when, having walked for miles across Terminal 5 (with a child’s “are we there yet?” sense at every step), we are finally strapped into a seat designed for the present rather than the previous mayor of our city (if they measured the average human frame, did they forget that the femur is connected to both the pelvis and the patella? – there was no room for either), we come to the realisation: Saint-Simon did not have to endure this. While he might have escaped the seat problem by going business class, the poisoning from aero chemicals, stale air-conditioning and other travellers’ respiratory illnesses are inescapable. And thoughts of “would it really be worthwhile?” began to take hold.

For if you only know Tiepolo’s pastels from reproduction you could understandably reach the conclusion that they are flat, inert images, almost naïve – certainly by comparison with the sophisticated nuance of a Perronneau. A sort of not-quite-Liotard, with some of the autistic signs you find in autodidacts (although of course Lorenzo was taught by his famous father and brother). Even if you’ve seen the work that has passed through London sales, you will perhaps still harbour some of these concerns: there have been one or two masterpieces, but also several that don’t contradict the doubt.

Any such idea is immediately extinguished by seeing the Madrid pastels.

You should logically first go to the Prado (of course itself more than a reason to go to Madrid – it is one of the great picture galleries of the world – but it may not be a good idea to immerse yourself too deeply in Rubens, Velázquez or Rogier van der Weyden before going to Room 20), where for a temporary period (to coincide with the main exhibition – they are very rarely displayed) you can see the six pastels of the Spanish royal children which Tiepolo made in 1763. You can of course (as always) find all the pastels (with history, literature etc.) in the Dictionary in the Lorenzo Tiepolo article, and the Prado website has excellent articles on them here. For a general introduction to Tiepolo’s pastels, there is a fascinating talk by the great specialist Andrés Úbeda de los Cobos on YouTube. So I needn’t repeat the factual content of those sources here.

These tiepolo-lorenzo-principe-di-casa-reale-d-f-copyprinces and princesses are of course the children of Carlos III – or at least six of his thirteen children: five died in infancy, the eldest son was an imbecile and the next but one was left behind to rule Naples and the Two Sicilies when his father vacated that throne to take up that of Spain following his own brother’s death. (Don’t expect me to give an account of the Bourbons and their inbreeding.) The boys range in age from a youthful-looking 15 down to the youngest, 5, who is given legs so as to match the size of the others (the legs don’t really fit anatomically). Their sisters are older, 18 and 19.

Viewed in reproduction they seem curiously static, doll-like figures. De visu, however, they are brought to life by the incredibly fresh colours clearly visible in the unobtrusive lighting in the Prado. They are for the most part in excellent condition (Carlos, the heir, has suffered some damage along the riband of the San Genaro), with the fleur of the pastel and the sharpness particularly of the black chalk used in the lace and hair a particular delight. The technique is highly finished.

It is however the faces that seem to have caused Tiepolo the most difficulty: on a purely technical level, he sets himself a challenge with very delicate tonalities, surrounding the faces with a very slightly pink tint to the wigs, requiring a contrasting pale blue underpainting in the faces. This is dominated by the bravura treatment of the accessories: the lace, hats, birds and gun, and most emphatically the ribands and jewels of the chivalric orders with which these young boys had been showered. You wonder whether this blankness of facial expression was a failure of Tiepolo as portraitist – whether through an over-ambitious tonal balance (reversing the rule of emphasising the face over all else), or simply the age-old problem of royal portraitists in obtaining long enough sittings with his subjects. You wonder too if the formulaic expressions arise simply because the children are so young: there are no characters to be expressed and individuated – but that cannot be right, because the girls and eldest boy seem to have less personality than the youngest. And then perhaps you wonder whether in fact these are not really portraits at all: they are dynastic displays of attributes. Josefa is dressed up à l’antique (her sister’s dress is modern, but the ermine mantle and jewelled cap have the air of fancy dress too), but it is her dog that seems the more lifelike. Or was it that Tiepolo, so much more the courtier than Goya, was gently anticipating his message: the eldest may have been excluded from the succession, but were his siblings that much brighter?

Now go to the Palacio Real for the main event: the room in the temporary exhibition Carlos III: majestad y ornato en lose scenarios del rey illustrado devoted to the series of twelve of Tiepolo’s so-called Tipos populares. (The exhibition also has some interesting paintings by Mengs and some decorative things that I won’t discuss.) You can of course exhaust yourself first by going round the palace: I would leave that to another visit. But before I went in I took this snap of the courtyard in the palace:


This was on a February day. Look at the sky. That’s where Tiepolo’s concept of colour comes from. And if you’re used to London or even Paris, this is something you need to adjust for.

Full marks again to the Patrimonio Nacional for the display of these extraordinary works. They are given a room to themselves, and the wall colour and lighting work extremely well. They attracted considerable interest, but the room was not overcrowded. Here’s a terrible screenshot from the video to give you some idea:


The website seems only to have this essay, but it is worth mentioning the persuasive argument of Andrés Úbeda de los Cobos in favour of a revised chronology based on a progressive increase in the number of figures included. They start of course a decade later than the royal portraits, and continue for a couple of years before the illness that led to the artist’s death aged barely 40. They seem however to have that end-of-life maturity that one can find in a Schubert or a Mozart as well as in a Rembrandt or a Chardin.

But what is that Tiepolo is exploring here? Without repeating Úbeda’s analysis, several points must be noted. First, the subtlety of the colour and exquisiteness of the finish have to be experienced directly, not through reproduction: perhaps the most delicate is the Guitarrista y mujer joven (shown at the top of this post).

Second as I have argued (less obviously) with the princes, they are not really portraits. As Úbeda points out, even the narrative element of the earlier tipos, viewed as “genre”, effectively breaks down in the later, more complex pieces.

While it is trite to talk about eyes in portraiture (John Russell argued instead that it was the nose that mattered), what emerged for me in viewing this group was a hypnotic study of eyes abstracted from personality, from persons or even from faces. There are eyes of every colour: browns from hazel to chestnut, all shades of grey, and blues from azure to periwinkle. They are seen full on, or fully diverted as in the girl below. They are shown mostly in faces, but sometimes isolated with carnival masks, or peeping out behind other figures, in pairs, or singly, like a mourning ring. They pop out at all levels in the picture plane, as dizzying as the placement of hands in a Largillierre study. They seem to be expressive – and then not so. One is shocked by the blind man’s dead eyes:


but perhaps even more so by the profile in the foreground of a man whose eyes are covered by his hat: is he not us, the innocent (or not so innocent) viewer?


These images are profoundly unsettling in many ways. At the risk of projecting too much from our own times, they seem to express a kind of existential angst – a dissociation of society expressed by the compression of space noted by Úbeda, but degenerating into exclusion of the individual (just as the princes had been omitted from their own portraits). There is also a curious parallel between the tipos populares – this for example


and a pastel by Vigilius Eriksen from 1768, although it is difficult to see how Tiepolo could have known this work:


Eriksen was a Danish artist working in Russia when he made this picture of a 108-year-old peasant from Tsarskoye Selo with her children; Catherine the Great liked it enough to commission an oil replica. Is it entirely coincidental that both these works were created in environments where essentially feudal societies were colliding with Enlightenment ideas embraced by élites? Or that they were both made by foreign visitors to those societies, bringing a different, perhaps alien, perspective?


From → Art history

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