This hitherto unpublished work, depicting the suicide of the ancient philosopher, Seneca, is an important addition to the corpus of Tiepolo's early paintings. The Death of Seneca was executed in the early 1720s, during an experimental phase in the restless painter's nascent career marked by a variety of stylistic expressions. Tiepolo's initial appropriation of the tenebrism of Piazzetta and Solimena (see note to lot 52), for example, is here usurped by an emphasis on luxuriant color and broadly modeled planes of light. This new pictorial mode would find its ultimate expression in the radiant ceiling fresco, The Triumph of Eloquence, commissioned in 1724-5 for the Palazzo Sandi, Venice. Tiepolo's contemporary Abraham banishing Hagar [?], today in a private collection (fig. 1; see K. Christiansen, ed., Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770, New York, 1996, pp. 74-6, no. 8, illustrated), further illustrates the artist's penchant for brilliant color and an oblique arrangement of the figures to the picture plane.
A gifted draftsman, easel and fresco painter, Giambattista Tiepolo enjoyed great fame and fortune throughout his long life. The Venetian engraver and connoisseur Anton Maria Zanetti the Elder praised the artist particularly for his 'quantity of figures, implemented with a multiplicity and an excellent disposition of innovative ideas.' Among the numerous political figures to benefit from the protean painter's innovations were Prince Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau of Würzburg and King Charles III of Spain, for whom Tiepolo permanently moved to Madrid in 1763. That same year Count Francesco Algarotti, the ambitious collector and adviser to the courts of Dresden and Berlin, lauded Tiepolo for his unique blend of beauty and pathos and his 'fecund imagination', placing him on a par with the great Raphael and Poussin.
According to the Annals of Tacitus (15:60-5), the Stoic philosopher Seneca (c.4 B.C.-65 A.D.) served as Nero's tutor and political adviser before being accused of conspiring against the emperor. He was commanded to take his own life, which he did with great dignity, fortitude and emotional control, all befitting his belief in the sovereignty of reason. Tiepolo depicts the ill-fated philosopher moments after the dictation of a dissertation, when he cut his own veins, imbibed poison and sat in a warm bath so as to expedite his demise. He is flanked by his compassionate wife, who attempted suicide alongside her husband, and a standing Roman guard (dressed in modern Venetian costume), who successfully stymied her attempt to take her own life.
Tiepolo's Suicide of Aiace Telamonio, a coeval painting identical in scale and technique to the present work, was sold at Christie's in 1996, suggesting the possibility of a decorative cycle illustrating scenes of death from Antiquity (Christie's, New York, 12 January 1996, lot 139).