This hitherto unpublished painting constitutes a rare and exciting rediscovery in the oeuvre of Giambattista Tiepolo, the leading Venetian artist of his generation. It is a rediscovery made all the more significant by the picture's exquisite state of preservation; still unlined, it displays the full nuance and delicacy of Tiepolo's consummate use of impasto technique. It is rare that any 18th-century work - indeed, any Old Master - survives in such unadulterated state. Forgotten for some 200 years, it has remained virtually untouched until the present day.
As a product of the high tradition of Venetian art, Portrait of a lady as Flora partakes of the vibrant colorito of Titian and the courtly elegance of Veronese, while engaging with a subject that had been dear to both those artists - the beauty of the individual female model. At the same time, it sheds new light on the art and life of the last and greatest of the Venetian heirs to that tradition, Giambattista Tiepolo - raising fascinating insights into his painting practice and his international commissions in the 1750s and '60s.
The canvas presents the viewer with the figure of an alluring young woman, partly-covered with classicising drapery, her left breast provocatively exposed, her arms swathed in a rich, pale golden cloth of the type that delighted the painters of Venice, long the centre of the international trade in expensive stuffs and textiles. Although one can spot a solitary pearl attached to the trim of the woman's dress, near her left arm, it is striking that no other jewellery seems to be present in the depiction - an unusual decision on the part of Tiepolo, who elsewhere richly decorates his models with pearls, brooches, necklaces, earrings and cameos. In fact, here it is the sitter's flowers that are her jewels - they spill down from inside her mantle, resting on (rather than carried by) her arm, a large pink rose positioned so as to mimic a jewelled clasp where the folds of her golden mantle meet; a pink rosebud and its light-green leaves pass gently between her fingers, evoking jewelled rings; darker roses decorate either side of her hair, while a tendril of delicate leaves trails down along her cheek, like an elaborate dangling earring. These flowers, like the jewels of a princess, are the sitter's attributes; they cast her as the classical goddess Flora, a herald of Spring. They are natural adornments that Tiepolo paints with all the splendour of Venetian colourism, and which echo the beauty of his model. Her characterisation as a personification of fertility, spring and organic growth constitutes, by extension, an allegory of unfettered nature. Her pose, the assured turn of her head, the elegant arrangement of her hands and her direct gaze all indicate a sense of confident self-presentation; indeed, her eyes seem not only to acknowledge the viewer's gaze, but to return it - with a piercing, searching intensity.
This enigmatic physiognomy, so beautiful but also so individualised, has long been an object of intense fascination for Tiepolo scholars. The same features recur again and again in Tiepolo's paintings, on every scale, in both religious and secular subject matter, in intimate easel paintings and monumental public commissions. As the historian of Venetian painting Antonio Morassi noted, these include the large canvases of Verolanuova (c. 1735-40); the altarpiece of The Madonna with Saints Catherine, Rose and Agnes in the Church of the Gesuiti, Venice (c. 1740); the frescoes of the Palazzo Clerici, Milan (1740); the Triumph of Venus now in Dresden (c. 1740); the canvas Neptune offering Venice the gift of the Sea in the Ducal Palace, Venice (1745-50); the oval canvases painted for the Palazzo Barbarigo, Venice (1745-50), now partly in Europe and partly in the United States; and the frescoes of the Palazzo Labia, Venice (c. 1745-50). The model can also be discerned in subsequent works, from those at Würzburg (1751-3) to those in the Chiesa della Pietà, Venice (1754-5), the Villa Valmarana (1757) and later in Madrid (1762-7). Morassi asserts that she became 'idealised and almost stylised into a type which seems now part of Tiepolo's art as altogether appropriate to its aesthetic canons' (see Morassi, 'Giambattista Tiepolo's Girl with a lute and the clarification of some points in the work of Domenico Tiepolo', Art Quarterly, Summer 1958, p. 186, note 3). For many art historians, this particular woman has become an intrinsic and instantly recognisable part of the artists style, a signature 'Tiepolo face'.
But who was she? It is an indication of the enduring appeal of the narrative and biographical aspects of painting that writers have been almost as engaged with this question as with the study of Tiepolo's technique and stylistic chronology, and the development of ideas on her identity traces a captivating historiographical thread. The nineteenth-century art historian Giovanni Marino Urbani de Gheltof spread the legend of the beautiful Cristina, a gondolier's daughter specially chosen by Tiepolo to be his model. According to Urbani de Gheltof, Tiepolo valued this model so highly that when he and his family moved to Spain in 1762, he had Cristina come too, so that he could keep painting this woman who was 'beautiful with a haughty beauty':
Naturally our painter, like all others, had his own preferred models and, more particularly, his preferred female models. As is recorded in the aforementioned manuscript (Vidas de los Pintores), Tiepolo brought over from Venice to Spain a women muy hermosa as a model for his frescoes for the Throne Room in Madrid.
She was called Cristina, the daughter of a gondolier, and she was the same model who had been portrayed in the frescoes depicting the deeds of Cleopatra in the Palazzo Labia in Venice.
This woman, if we are to believe the paintings which have handed her down to us, was beautiful with a haughty beauty. The graceful and fleshy forms and the voluptuous and luscious physiognomy remind one of that gorgeous daughter of Venice who, even if wrapped in Ethiopic patches, will never lose her natural beauty. Cleopatra herself could not be more beautiful or more provocative (Giovanni Marino Urbani de Gheltof, Tiepolo e la sua famiglia, Venice, 1879, pp. 90-2).
Such theories helped weave a richly Romantic narrative out of Tiepolo's life; more recently, this narrative has been challenged by careful reassessment of Tiepolo's biography and the examination of further sources. Mercedes Percerutti-Garberi points out that it was Fogolari ('La modella di Tiepolo (Cecilia e no Cristina, la moglie e no l'amante)', L'Illustrazione Italiana, 11 December 1932, supplement) who first proposed the alternative idea that the model was in fact a member of the artist's family, arguing that it may have been Giambattista's wife, Cecilia Guardi (M. Percerutti-Garberi, 'Segnalzaioni Tiepolesche', Commentari, XV, 1964, pp. 257-8). Percerutti-Garberi proposed Giambattista's youngest daughter, Orsetta Tiepolo, as an alternative suggestion, drawing attention to the similarity between the face of the so-called 'Cristina' and that of Orsetta Tiepolo in a group portrait of the Tiepolo family by Giandomenico Tiepolo (formerly Mentmore, Rosebery Collection; now British Rail Pension Fund, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Percerutti-Garberi points out the very close resemblance between Cecilia and Orsetta, suggesting that their shared features became Tiepolo's ideal of feminine beauty, modelled first by his wife and subsequently by his daughter. Given the close cooperation between members of the Tiepolo family, it is not unlikely that Cecilia may have been Giambattista's chief model in her youth, and that Orsetta had assumed this function by the time Flora was painted. This hypothesis has endured since Percerutti-Garberi first proposed it in 1964, gaining the support of Fern Rusk Shapley in 1973, Michael Levey in 1986, and Massimo Gemin and Filippo Pedroco in their catalogue raisonné of 1993.
Apart from any speculation as to the identity of the mysterious model, clearly a woman of central importance to Tiepolo's work, it is almost certain that the present picture was part of a series by Giambattista. In its half-length format, its colour scheme, composition and style, Flora is strikingly similar to the Portrait of a young lady with a parrot (fig. 1: Oxford, Ashmolean Museum - one of Tiepolo's most celebrated works) and the Portrait of a young lady with a mandolin (fig. 2: Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts). Since their discovery, these two works have been grouped together in an effort to reconstruct a series of such pictures painted by Giambattista shortly before his departure to Spain in 1762. They would seem to be connected to a passage in a letter from F.M. Tassi to the Count Carrara di Bergamo, dated 15 December 1760, describing a series of half-length female fantaisies that Giambattista was working on for the Empress Elizabeth of Russia (1709-1762):
[Il Tiepolo] ora sta facendo alcune mezze figure di donne a capriccio per l'Imperatrice de Moscovia, che non si possono vedere cose più belle, più vive e più fine. [Tiepolo is now working on some half-length female figures a capriccio for the Empress of Russia; one could not find anything more beautiful, more vivacious or more refined.]
Although the 'mezze figure di donne a capriccio' invoked by Tassi in 1760 received no further primary documentation, present scholarly consensus agrees that the Ashmolean and Detroit pictures are among the likeliest candidates. Tiepolo's activity for the Russian court in this period is further documented by the existence of three etchings after lost ceiling paintings by Giambattista Tiepolo, which in Giandomenico's catalogue of prints after his father's work were inscribed 'in Petroburgh', suggesting that they may have been works delivered to the Empress, their subsequent whereabouts unrecorded. One of these plafonds, probably painted for the Palace at Oranienbaum, is even thought to have included a portrait of the Empress Elizabeth as a cloud-borne Venus.
A series of voluptuous, richly attired women - possibly constituting an Allegory of the Seasons or the Senses - would furthermore have been particularly suited to the Empress's taste for programmatic decoration. She had commissioned the Imperial Court's resident Venetan painter, Pietro Rotari, to paint an encyclopaedic series of 368 beauties for her cabinet of 'Muse e delle Grazie' at the Grand Palace in Peterhof, newly renovated by another Italian court artist, the architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. In 1760-2 Rastrelli's work on the Winter Palace was reaching completion, and the paintings commissioned from Tiepolo by December 1760, mentioned in Tassi's letter, may have been intended for that monumental building - soon to become the site of the Hermitage.
A third candidate for the series, a Portrait of a young lady wrapped in a fur, has also been proposed; this work is now only known from a pastel by Lorenzo Tiepolo, paired with a pastel after the Ashmolean's Portrait of a young lady holding a parrot (both Kress Collection, K150 and K151 in the El Paso Museum). The Young lady wrapped in a fur, sometimes called Winter, depicts the same model as Flora, and is strikingly similar in composition. This would seem to support the argument that both Winter and Flora (or, perhaps, Spring?), with the Detroit and Ashmolean pictures, were painted as part of a single decorative programme.
Whether or not Flora is a 'pendant' to the Ashmolean picture in a conventional sense, it seems certain that they were painted for the same series, almost certainly an Imperial commission for the Russian court. It is striking that Flora and the Ashmolean picture share a mirroring compositional structure, as though they were painted to hang in a harmonious relationship to one another. Lending this hypothesis a certain poetic resonance is the tentative suggestion, put forward by various scholars, that the sitter in the Ashmolean picture is another of Giambattista's daughters, Angela Maria. Speaking of Tiepolo's daughters in the Rosebery portrait, Michael Levey muses, 'It is hard not to recognise in the girls the models, or at least the types, which had served for several of Tiepolo's women [including] the "fancy pictures" destined for Russia' (M. Levey, Giambattista Tiepolo, New Haven and London, 1986, p. 251).
Why the 'mezze donne a capriccio' never arrived in Saint Petersburg - or, if they ever did, why they did not remain there - is a mystery. In Flora's case, her long absence from public scrutiny has had its blessings, ensuring that the picture has been preserved - never lined and never cleaned. Kept in the same French château since at least the nineteenth century, where at one point it was moved into storage as a picture too osé, too daring to hang beside the more austere ancestral portraits, it remained virtually forgotten until recently being discovered and identified by René Millet, the French expert in Old Master pictures. We are grateful to Dr. Catherine Whistler of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford for confirming the attribution to Giambattista Tiepolo on the basis of first-hand examination, and for proposing a dating in the mid-1750s. We are also grateful to Dr. George Knox for confirming the attribution of this 'remarkably fine painting' on the basis of photographs, noting that it is 'on a par' with the Ashmolean Portrait of a young lady with a parrot.