Christie’s Old Masters specialist Furio Rinaldi with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Three studies of a donkey

From the walls of Brooke Astor’s apartment: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Three studies of a donkey

These charming 18th-century studies recur in major Tiepolo works held in museums around the world. Two centuries after they were made in Madrid, they were cherished by the animal-loving New York socialite, as specialist Furio Rinaldi explains

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.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Three studies of a donkey. Red and white chalk on paper. 12¼ x 18¾ in (31 x 47.6 cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. Offered in Old Master & British Drawings Including Works from the Collection of Jean Bonna on 28 January 2020 at Christie’s in New York
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Three studies of a donkey. Red and white chalk on paper. 12¼ x 18¾ in (31 x 47.6 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. Offered in Old Master & British Drawings Including Works from the Collection of Jean Bonna on 28 January 2020 at Christie’s in New York

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.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Flight into Egypt, c. 1767-70. Oil on canvas. Property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Mrs Charles Wrightsman, 2019
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Flight into Egypt, c. 1767-70. Oil on canvas. Property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Mrs Charles Wrightsman, 2019

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.