Framed studies of a donkey’s rear end might seem like a strange choice to hang in a drawing room, let alone a drawing room that regularly hosted Wall Street tycoons, movie stars and royalty. But to the New York socialite Brooke Astor, the choice of picture could well have been a wry joke. ‘Money is like manure,’ the silver-tongued philanthropist famously once remarked. ‘It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.’
It might be one reason why Astor mounted these three studies alongside other pictures on a lemon-coloured wall behind a sofa in her double-storey apartment at 778 Park Avenue.
Another might be the fact that the studies are part of a small group of preparatory drawings executed by the Venetian Baroque virtuoso Giovanni Battista during the last decade of his life. They were shown for the first time at a Tiepolo exhibition in Venice in 1951, a few years before Astor acquired the sheet.
The large paper sheet contains three red and white chalk studies of a donkey which were made by Tiepolo in Madrid between 1762 and 1770, while he was working for King Charles III (1716-1788) of Spain. Christie’s Old Master drawings specialist Furio Rinaldi explains that studies from this period are incredibly rare, especially compared to the hundreds that exist from his preceding years in Venice and Würzburg.
‘Even taking into account for losses, the scarcity of drawings from Spain suggests that while there, Tiepolo ran a close-knit workshop with just his two sons, Domenico and Lorenzo, and that their drawing practice was minimal,’ says the specialist. This work, he adds, is ‘one of just a handful of fantastic red chalk sheets that show the artist’s brilliant skill so clearly.’
Tiepolo eventually used all three donkey studies in his oil paintings. The animal on the left features in the The Flight into Egypt, below — which the collector Jayne Wrightsman bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019 — as well as a painting of the same name in the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
The middle donkey appears in a different painting of the same subject formerly in the Thurn and Taxis Collection in Switzerland. The view on the right was tweaked for a painting now in the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.
Based on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the Flight into Egypt was one of Tiepolo’s favourite subjects, from his earliest paintings of the 1720s to the very last years of his life. In his series on the journey of the Holy Family he was able to translate observations from his own journey from Venice to Madrid that took him across the Alps and the Pyrenees.
The pictures also underline the ongoing exchange that took place with his son, Domenico, who published a series of 24 etchings titled Idee pittoresche sopra la fugga in Egitto (Pictorial Ideas on the Flight into Egypt) in 1753.
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Mrs. Astor purchased the work in the late 1950s from the New York dealer Mathias Komor. ‘In New York at the time, collecting 18th-century Venetian drawings was very much in fashion,’ says Rinaldi.
Brooke Astor lived to the age of 105, and the majority of her collection was auctioned off after she passed away in 2007. This poignant Tiepolo, however, stayed within her family. Beyond the occasional photoshoot, it hasn’t been seen in public for more than 60 years.