During the summer, 18th-century Venetians customarily went on villeggiatura, an extended holiday in their country homes on the mainland, where the air was more salubrious than in the crowded city of Venice. This fresh, entertaining scene perfectly captures the atmosphere of a sun-dappled afternoon outside one such estate: laughing, smiling, luminous in the sunshine, colorfully dressed and arrested in an instant of lively movement by the artist's brush, Giandomenico's figures and the animated dancing dogs at their feet embody the very essence of the lighthearted holiday mood of villegiatura. Elegantly attired ladies, cooling themselves with fans, stand alongside stiffly-posed gentleman dressed in black and children clamoring for a better view of the commotion at center: a pretty dancing gypsy girl, tambourine raised high above her head, is the focus of the scene. A companion is seated at far left, while another, his back to the viewer, accompanies the tambourine with a bagpipe. In the small clearing between them four dogs--some humorously dressed up as humans--dance on their hind legs to the music, to the delight of the crowd.
The 18th century witnessed a second Golden Age of Venetian culture: though the city was no longer a great political power, it had reemerged as an artistic capital, home to luminaries such as Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, Giambattista Piazzetta, and Giambattista Piranesi. Its greatest artistic dynasty, though, was without doubt the Tiepolo family workshop, in which the young Giandomenico trained under his father Giambattista and traveled with him to assist on vast decorative commissions in Wurzburg (1750-1752) and Madrid (1762-1770). In these early years, Giandomenico's style was meant to blend seamlessly with that of his father, and some of his youthful works are barely distinguishable from Giambattista's. Indeed, the present picture and its pendant Dancing the Minuet (fig. 1), which most recently sold at Christie's, London (£1,308,500), were for many years thought to be works by the elder Tiepolo.
However, while Giambattista specialized in sweeping decorative schemes with scenes from antiquity, mythology, and the Bible, Giandomenico slowly evolved an independent style that highlighted his skill as an ingenious observer of everyday life. Correctly identified, along with its pendant, as a work by Giandomenico, The Dancing Dogs is among the finest examples of this aspect of the artist's oeuvre. The Dancing Dogs and Dancing the Minuet, along with a small group of elegant genre scenes depicting country festivities, are intimately connected to Giandomenico's work at the Foresteria (guesthouse) at Villa Valmarana near Vicenza, on whose decoration he collaborated with his father in 1757. Giandomenico's frescoes there are devoted to pastoral subjects, chinoiseries, and other humorous, closely observed vignettes from contemporary country life and the Venetian theater, and represent his first truly original paintings made outside the influence of his father's grand-manner style.
The present work and its pendant, which were astutely titled Low Life and High Life when they sold at Christie's in 1929, date to shortly after the Villa Valmarana frescoes. Comparable to other small-scale genre scenes painted by Giandomenico in the late 1750s and early 1760s, The Dancing Dogs and its pendant were first associated by James Byam-Shaw with Giandomenico's Spanish period, and all subsequent scholars have dated the pictures to c.1762, at the beginning of the artist's sojourn in Madrid.
While people are the principal characters in his genre scenes, Giandomenico's large troupe of actors also frequently includes dogs, like those at the center of the present picture. These creatures must have been near and dear to the artist's heart, as they appear throughout his secular and religious drawings and are often the subject of independent studies. The whimsy of canine acrobatics, which is the focus of The Dancing Dogs, can be found in some of Giandomenico's Punchinello images as well, such as the fresco at Zanigo (now in the Ca'Rezzonico, Venice) probably painted in the 1790s. It is also the focus of a charming drawing at the Morgan Library (fig. 2), which is a highlight of the exhibition Venetian Drawings: Tiepolo, Guardi, and Their World, on view at the museum until January 2014.
Along with its pendant, this picture was formerly in the collection of Cecile Lehman Mayer, née Cecile Seligman, who in 1912 married Harold Lehman. Harold's grandfather, Mayer Lehman, was one of the co-founders of the financial firm Lehman Brothers. Robert Lehman, whose legacy as a giant of the banking world is rivaled only by the importance of his art collection, bequeathed over 3,000 objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, to be housed in a special wing built specifically for the collection. Giandomenico Tiepolo was among Robert Lehman's favorite artists--his collection of drawings by Giandomenico remains one of the largest ever assembled in private hands. Indeed it is likely that Cecile Seligman, who knew Robert Lehman through her marriage to his cousin, would have been exposed to Robert's collection and to his tastes. She may well have been acting on Robert Lehman's advice - direct or indirect - when she purchased the lovely pair of paintings by Tiepolo in Paris in the early 1950s.
(fig. 1) Giandomenico Tiepolo, Dancing the Minuet, Christie's, London, 6 December, lot 41.
(fig. 2) Giandomenico Tiepolo, Dancing dogs with musicians and bystanders, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. 2012.26. Estate of Mrs. Vincent Astor.