Venice catches our attention with a strange, opulent theatricality, like brightly colored banners fluttering in the afternoon sun. In Tiepolo, Guardi, and Their World: Eighteenth-Century Venetian Drawings, which opened on Friday, The Morgan Library and Museum looks at the role of drawing in the city which became a center of international arts patronage as its political power attenuated and died.
Over 100 works from The Morgan's vast collection provide a sweeping assessment of the achievements of this period with names that are practically synonymous with Venice -- Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo, Canaletto, the Guardis, along with Piranessi, Gaspar Diziani, Francesco Tironi, and others.
The exhibit opens with Sebastiano Ricci's "Two Angels", a modest-size drawing in ink and wash over charcoal, strangely beautiful for the sculptural form the figures possess, intensely present yet otherworldly. From Pietro Longhi's poetic "Pastoral Landscape" to the bucolic nostalgia of Marco Ricci's "A Roman Capriccio", the exhibit spans scenes of daily life and fanciful compositions, preparatory studies for commissioned works and independent finished pieces.
Of the nine works by Giovanni Battista Piazetta (1682-1754), "Portrait of a Girl with a Pear" and "Young Woman with a Tambourine" stand out for their meticulous description of volume and form, with black chalk creating soft shifts in value, white chalk detailing crisp highlights, and the paper acting as a middle value. The effect is so complete that they seem to have been caught in a particular moment, the little cymbals on the tambourine just now fading away.
Francesco Guardi's impressionistic "View of Levico in the Valsugana" is a languid rural scene of a road gently curving past a village and through an archway, an imposing mountain hemming in the view as leaves, clouds, and sunlight gently ripple like the surface of a stream. Canaletto's "Architectural Capriccio" is a beautiful, pearl-gray scene of imposing stucco masses and archways. Soft light brushes through the open spaces in between, as people pause amid the day's unhurried business.
Like a meteor crossing the sky is Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Tiepolo (1696-1770), and in thirty works we get some measure of the man's genius. His drawings based upon classical mythology are breathtaking and "Psyche Transported to Olympus", a swirl of beautiful, fluid lines and washes over black chalk, possesses an immediate sense of airy, upward urgency and grace.
Meanwhile his "Virgin and Child Seated on a Globe" shows Mary atop a large sphere holding the baby Jesus who raises his right hand in greeting, a putto busily managing the Virgin's train, and an angel hovering before them with intense energy, while a fire of skulls and bones flickers and snaps below.
Twenty-one drawings represent the monumental career of Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1726?-1804), who began in his father's studio in 1740. Though greatly influenced by Giambattista, Domenico's line is lighter, more tremulous, like a butterfly's wing. After a landmark career, he spent the years from 1786 to 1790 creating more than 300 highly-finished drawings of scenes from the New Testament, of contemporary society, and of the life of the Commedia dell'Arte character Punchinello.
"Christ on the Mount of Olives" shows Jesus collapsed on the ground in his moment of overwhelming anxiety as moonlight reaches down to touch him with gentle beams and to push back the garden's heavy veil of shadow, if only for a moment.
In "The Holy Family Arrives at the Robber's Farm" a haloed Mary, shrouded in a white mantle, sits upon a donkey as she and Joseph, leaning upon a staff, approach the entryway of a country estate, welcomed and aided by the servants. As the doorway to the property is held open for them, afternoon sun and cool shadow give volume to figures and forms while creating almost tangible spaces in between.
Domenico's drawings always carry something of the spirit of the life around him and, whether in biblical subjects, scenes from the Venetian streets, or imaginative and bittersweet illustrations of the life of Punchinello, they have a tinge of sadness somehow. After seeing the 1,100-year-old Venetian Republic come to its twilight end and fall away, he lived out his last few years before dying in 1804.
Tiepolo, Guardi, and Their World: Eighteenth-Century Venetian Drawings,opens Friday, September 27, 2013 at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY . 212-685-0008, themorgan.org
More information about Robert Edward Bullock's work can be found atbullockonline.com