This spectacular picture represents an extraordinary moment in mid-eighteenth century European taste and in the artistic relationship between Venice and Northern Europe. Johann Heinrich Tischbein I belonged to the most productive dynasty of painters that emerged in rococo Germany. Many German painters, like their French and English counterparts were drawn to Italy, Mengs, Maron and a generation later Hackaert being the most obvious examples. What is remarkable in the case of Tischbein is that a relatively brief sojourn leads to a picture that so uniquely recalls an aspect of Venetian life that no native painter described in the same terms and thus captures the posterity of the world of gaming in Venice, the Ridotto, the world through which Casanova cuts so determined a swathe.
Tischbein received his early training in Germany, from among others his elder brother, Johann Valentin Tischbein. Paris exerted huge influence on the visual arts at the courts of Germany; and it was therefore perfectly natural for an aspirant painter to further his studies in Paris. Tischbein went there in 1743 and had the prescience to attach himself to the establishment of Carl van Loo. Now somewhat overlooked, van Loo was a sensible choice as a mentor, a painter of unfailing competence and matching intelligence. Tischbein had much to learn, and spent five years in Paris. In 1748, however, he set out for Italy. He spent eight months in Venice and then moved by way of Bologna and Florence to Rome. In 1751 he returned north, by way of Parma and Piacenza, to Venice for a nine month sojourn. In Venice naturally his main interest was in contemporary developments. The greatest Venetian master of the time, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was fully committed in Wurzburg and - not that their work was a particular interest to Tischbein - the great view painters too were absent, Canaletto based in London, Bellotto in the North. The one painter of European rank who maintained a productive studio in Venice was Giovanni Battista Piazzetta. As Pavanello has demonstrated (op. cit., p. 79) Tischbein studied in his workshop, preparing a number of carefully drawn sheets of academic nudes.
Tischbein's first biographer, Joseph Joseph Friedrich Engelschall (in 1798), recorded that he painted two pictures in Venice, and in the posthumous inventory of 1791 a concert portrait group is listed. Pavanello argues that the present, evidently very much more ambitious, picture, and was executed either in Venice or shortly after Tischbein's return to Germany.
The picture was first recorded in 1931 as by Pietro Longhi, whose characteristic genre groups are of course wholly different both in scale and character. When the picture resurfaced in 1984 it was ascribed to Lorenzo Tiepolo, son of Giovanni Battista, whose reputation rests on the extraordinary pastels he executed in Spain, but whose oeuvre has still not been satisfactorily defined.
Pavanello's attribution to Tischbein is incontestable. The composition is a natural evolution from that of the masquerade at Kassel, in which the elderly bewigged man on the left and the turbaned croupier are both found. As Pavanello demonstrates, the man on the right, seen in the act of raising his tricorn, is the artist who is shown at approximately the same age in the sensitive self-portrait, generally dated between 1752 and 1755 at Kassel. The girl beside him can be identified as the artist's wife, Marie-Sophie Robert (1726-1759), whose father was a prominent member of the French community at Kassel. They married in 1756 and Marie-Sophie is the subject of three portraits, the first of 1756 at Berne (Kuntsmuseum), the second of 1757 at Berlin (Gemaldergälerie), the third at Kassel. The portrait in this picture is presumably the earliest of the sequence.
Although gaming was ubiquitous in Europe, it had a particular importance in Venice, where the Ridotto was a state monopoly, with designated rooms in the Palazzo Dandolo. The most accurate visual records of the Sal Grande del Ridotto are by Francesco Guardi.
While the artist's marriage may not establish a terminus post quem of 1756, his wife's inclusion might suggest that the picture was conceived after Tischbein's return to Germany from Italy. It may thus be that its distinction from the general run of commissions executed from 1753 in the artist's capacity as court painter to Landgraf Wilhem VIII of Hesse at Kassel may, in part, reflect the rather different nature of the subject. Whether the picture was conceived in Venice or in Germany, it is a marvelous expression of the complex pattern of European artistic relationships, and may be regarded as Tischbein's absolute masterpiece.