In the second half of the 1780s, Giandomenico embarked on his most extensive project as a draftsman, a series of over three hundred large drawings illustrating the New Testament. It is one of three major graphic narrative cycles produced by the artist, the others being the Punchinello series (or Divertimento per li regazzi; see lot 50) and the Scenes of Contemporary Life, each totalling about one hundred sheets. These series were intended as independent works of art, not as studies for works in other media, and can be considered among the most successful in the artist’s œuvre. In general, but particularly with the New Testament series, Domenico worked in a very systematic way, maintaining a consistent quality, signing almost every sheet and providing the drawings with neat framing lines.
Despite its important place in his work, very little is known about the artist’s intentions with the New Testament series, or indeed the other two major drawing projects. Could Domenico have simply made them for his own pleasure and artistic satisfaction? As noted by Adelheid Gealt and George Knox, he seems to have had little interest in finding a market for the drawings, and probably as a result of this some large groups have remained together (op. cit., p. 3). The most substantial group, known as the ‘Recueil Fayet’, comprises 138 drawings and is preserved in the Louvre (ibid., p. 4).
The present sheet shows the Holy Family entering the city of Memphis, illustrating the apocryphal Arabic (or Syriac) Infancy Gospel (8:12): ‘Thence they proceeded to Memphis, and saw Pharaoh, and abode three years in Egypt.’ The artist’s approach to the subject is highly original and unconventional: against the backdrop of a strongly foreshortened city wall, Mary and Joseph are seen from the back only, as is the case with the majority of the peasants who feature with suprising prominence in this religious scene. Groups of figures like these appear throughout the New Testament series, as noted by Gealt and Knox who describe them as ‘witnesses’: they engage the viewer with the main action and prompt reaction to the scene (ibid., pp. 46-7). In the present instance, however, they seem to pay little attention to the Holy Family entering the city; in fact, they seem to fail to recognize them altogether. The three central figures of the composition feature again in a sheet from the Punchinello series as street criers in a drawing at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (A. Gealt, Domenico Tiepolo. The Punchinello Drawings, New York 1986, no. 47, ill.). The Holy Family leaving Memphis is shown in a sheet that was previously with Adolphe Stein (Gealt and Knox, op. cit., no. 74, ill.). Two related compositions in the New Testament series show the Holy Family entering and leaving the city of Sotinen (ibid., nos. 60, 63, ill.).