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Tiepolo: The Master of Color

Artgate Fondazione Cariplo - Tiepolo Giambattista, Cacciatore a cavallo
Cacciatore a cavallo, 1718

Today is the 316th birthday of the Venetian master Rococo painter Giambattista Tiepolo, one of the last great painters of Italy's four hundred year heritage of Old Masters. It's interesting that Venice—once proud of its greats such as Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto—began to fall into a kind of artistic recession in the 1700's, losing out the spotlight to Rome and Bologna. What Tiepolo did was reinvent the ceiling fresco in a way that few artists were able to equal. And he did with an uncanny ability to take the best elements from his past and contemporaries and make it his own, working quickly and with a remarkable use of color that is highly underrated.

Apollo and Daphne, 1745
In the example above Tiepolo uses warm skin tones to contrast with the deep blues of the sky behind them. If we look closely we see Apollo's cloak is a fiery red, a symbol of passion and infatuation in this case, but look how Tiepolo metamorphosizes it into a pinkish yellow around Daphne, (almost mocking his sun god status) and her skin is clearly as cool as her indifference toward the sun god. In fact, her right foot seems to be kicking him in the groin as he attempts to grab her leg. Tiepolo's humour is worth smiling at here. Below the river god Peneus holds his oar nearly horizontal (a flaccid reference?), as if trying ignore the whole situation. Tiepolo's use of intense colors and effortless composition ties them all together. It's clear that he learned much from not only his Renaissance contemporaries but his twisting figures are a direct influence from Mannerism also.

Apollo and Daphne, 1755
In this later version of the same subject, Tiepolo chooses a dynamic composition, with a less dramatic sky, and this time Apollo is adorned in yellow, clearly indicating his positive sunshine status with a bright halo, or big head. Daphne is now turned away from us, facing him, and the red robe is now worn by Peneus, pointing downward underneath the jug spilling water on top of it, as if to underline the loss of passion. The oar is now on the ground. The lush green behind Apollo suggests nature and his honest intentions, pointing at Cupid who is hiding underneath the sheets.

These are just two brief examples from Tiepolo's vast work, but it shows how color can help to tell a story while revealing brilliant harmony. However, his use of monochrome pen-and-ink watercolor washes show a great understanding of chiaroscuro, as in these examples at the Met (zoomable at full-screen):

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Beheading of Two Male Saints
The Metropolitan Museum of Art - The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saint Sebastian and a Franciscan Saint
The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Standing Figure of a Youth

Here are also some of his oil sketches and other works:

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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