Rarely seen in public since its first appearances at the 1951 Tiepolo exhibition in Venice, this remarkable sheet is part of a small group of preparatory drawings executed by Giovanni Battista during the last decade of his life, spent in Spain between 1762 and 1770.
Portrayed by the artist with vivid naturalism, the Spanish donkey (burro) was precisely linked by Morassi and Knox to a suite of late canvases representing the Flight into Egypt painted by Tiepolo in Madrid and now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, the Bellagio Study Center – The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Museo de Arte Antigua in Lisbon (K. Christiansen in Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770, exhib. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996, nos. 57a-d, ill.). While the central and the right-hand animals connect to the paintings in Bellagio and Lisbon respectively, the donkey drawn at far left was used by Tiepolo to accompany the Holy Family both in the painting recently bequeathed to The Metropolitan Museum of Art by the late Jayne Wrightsman (fig.) and in the canvas in Stuttgart.
Based on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (2:13-15), the subject of the Flight into Egypt was one of Tiepolo’s favorite, from his earliest paintings of the 1720’s to the very last years of his life, as attested by the works mentioned above. In a spirit of constant exchange between the master and his talented son, Domenico, the series reflects ideas and elements developed by the latter in a series of twenty-four etchings titled Idee pittoresche sopra la fuga in Egitto (Pictorial ideas on the Flight into Egypt) published in 1753. Nevertheless, Tiepolo’s highly evocative journey of the Holy Family translates the artist’s observations from his own journey from Venice to Madrid that took him across the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Remarkable for its size and poignant realism, this drawing, formerly in the collection of Brooke Astor, represents a highlight of Tiepolo’s graphic production in Spain, which remains extremely rare in contrast to the multitude of drawings dating from his years in Venice and Würzburg. Although losses might be taken into account, the scarcity of drawings suggests Tiepolo’s smaller workshop in Madrid, with Domenico and Lorenzo only, in which didactic activity and drawing practice was minimal. Exhibiting all the qualities of Tiepolo’s late chalk drawings – remarkable plasticity, vitality and control of the medium – the Astor sheet can be compared only to a handful of some lively red chalk sheets, like those executed for the paintings in the conventual church of San Pascual at Aranjuez, a Royal commission (see Knox, op. cit., II, figs. 261, 264).
Fig. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Flight into Egypt, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.