Description & Technical information

This large and impressive sheet is part of a distinctive group of around three hundred and twenty highly finished drawings executed by Domenico Tiepolo over a period of several years following his return from Spain in 1770, and probably through the 1790s. Entitled the ‘Large Biblical Series’ by James Byam Shaw, these large drawings in pen and ink wash – with each image measuring approximately 460 x 350 mm. - depict subjects taken mainly from the New Testament (primarily the Gospels, Parables and the Acts of the Apostles, particularly the lives of Saints Peter and Paul), as well as from fragmentary gospels and the Apocrypha. As one modern scholar has noted of this series, ‘All vertical in format, often with lavish landscape or architectural settings, the drawings are the most exhaustive exploration of biblical subjects by a single eighteenth-century artist. Even in the context of Italy, where the traditions of religious painting remained very much alive despite the impact of the Enlightenment, Domenico’s sustained fascination with biblical subjects is extraordinary, particularly since it is assumed that he drew them primarily to please himself, rather than at the behest of an ecclesiastical patron.’

While it has been proposed that these drawings may have been intended as book illustrations, the fact that many of the compositions are signed in full would suggest instead that they were always regarded by the artist as independent, finished works. Byam Shaw notes that, ‘They are essentially 'album drawings', intended not as studies for painting or etching, but as works of art in their own right; and they belong to a period when drawing, rather than painting, was Domenico’s chief occupation.’

Set in elaborate interior or landscape settings, the drawings of the ‘Large Biblical Series’ are among Domenico’s masterpieces as a draughtsman, executed with an assurance of handling and a fluidity of tonal washes that is often quite breathtaking. As George Knox has written, ‘[Domenico Tiepolo’s] most extensive and perhaps his most remarkable work as a draughtsman...The Large Biblical Series is a summation in more ways than one. For the first time, Domenico draws on the full resources of the Tiepolo studio, his own visual memory, his folios of drawings, and the vast accumulation of drawings by his father...Even so, by far the greater part of these compositions are entirely original inventions.’ It is likely that the artist kept the drawings in his studio until his death, as no prints were made of them.

Long held in a French private collection and never before exhibited, this large drawing of The Holy Family Meet the Robbers is a previously little-known example from Domenico Tiepolo’s‘Large Biblical Series’. The subject is taken from the so-called ‘Arabic Gospel’ or ‘Syriac Infancy Gospel’; a compilation of apocryphal stories about the infancy of Jesus, derived from a now-lost Syriac manuscript of the 5th or 6th century that became known to Western audiences after being published in an Arabic and Latin translation in the late 17th century. The present sheet depicts the obscure story of the Holy Family’s encounter with robbers during their Flight into Egypt, as recounted in the ‘Arabic Gospel’:

‘In their journey from hence they came into a desert country, and were told it was invested with robbers; so Joseph and Mary prepared to pass through it in the night. And as they were going along, behold, they saw two robbers asleep in the road, and with them a great number of robbers, who were their confederates, also asleep. The names of these two were Titus and Dumachus; and Titus said to Dumachus, I beseech thee let those persons go along quietly, that our company may not perceive anything of them: but Dumachus refusing, Titus said again, I will give thee forty groats, and as a pledge take my girdle, which he gave him before he had done speaking, that he might not open his mouth, or make a noise. When the Lady St. Mary saw the kindness which this robber did show them, she said to him, The Lord God will receive thee to his right hand, and grant thee pardon for thy sins. Then the Lord Jesus answered, and said to his mother, when thirty years are expired, O mother, the Jews will crucify me at Jerusalem; and these two thieves shall be with me at the same time upon the cross, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left, and from that time Titus shall go before me into paradise.’ (8:1-7).

This drawing is one of four episodes depicting the Holy Family and the robbers that Domenico Tiepolo included in the ‘Large Biblical Series’. A drawing in the Recueil Fayet in the Louvre seems to show a slightly earlier moment in the story, with the Holy Family’s initial encounter with the brigands causing Joseph to raise his arms in alarm. By contrast, in the present sheet, ‘Having befriended the robbers, the Holy Family goes home with them. Only the Virgin’s silhouetted form hints at fear or danger. As a palm tree leans protectively toward her…the robbers lead the donkey off in the distance…Since all the figures in this drawing are calm, this must represent the second episode, when the robbers are no longer threatening.’ Two further ‘Large Biblical Series’ drawings depict later episodes in the story, with the Holy Family arriving at the farm of the good thief, in a drawing now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, and the Holy Family leaving the same farm to continue on their journey, in a drawing in the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie in Besançon. Neither of these two subjects appears in the ‘Arabic Gospel’, however, and Domenico Tiepolo may have used the 4th or 5th century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus as a source.

The figure of the Virgin in the present sheet, seen from behind and holding the Christ Child in her arms, is derived from one of Domenico’s etchings from his series of The Flight into Egypt, published in 1753.

In his pioneering book on the drawings of Domenico Tiepolo, published in 1962, James Byam Shaw opined that, ‘it is with the pen and brush, in the second half of his career, that Domenico develops his most characteristic style. It is then that his compositions – in the large Biblical series particularly – become much more pictorial than his father’s, for all the freedom and looseness of his pen work; and it is his peculiar use of the wash, brown or grey or both combined, which contributes most to this effect. These were album-drawings, finished to a margin-line, such as his father seldom produced...Such drawings were intended no doubt for the collector’s portfolio, but many others he kept for his own use.’

Pen and brown ink and brown wash, with framing lines in brown ink, over traces of an underdrawing in black chalk.
Signed Dom.o Tiepolo f. at the lower left.
Numbered 11 in the upper left margin and 64 in the upper right margin. 
468 x 358 mm. (18 3/8 x 14 1/8 in.) [image]
492 x 380 mm. (19 3/8 x 15 in.) [sheet]

Medium: Pen and brown ink and brown wash
Dimensions: 46.8 x 35.8 cm (18³/₈ x 14¹/₈ inches)
Provenance: Among the contents of the artist’s studio in Venice at the time of his death, and by descent to his wife, Margherita Moscheni, Venice
Dispersed on the Venetian art market in the first half of the 19th century
Victor Luzarche, Tours, until 1868
Camille Rogier, Paris
Roger Cormier, Tours
His sale (Collection de M. Cormier de Tours. Dessins par Giovanni-Domenico Tiepolo), Paris, Georges Petit, 30 April 1921, lot 37 (La Fuite en Égypte: la Sainte Famille arrivant en vue d’une ville. Plume et lavis de sépia. Haut,. 47 cent.; larg., 36 cent.)
Galerie J. Kugel, Paris
Private collection, France.

Literature: Adelheid M. Gealt and George Knox, Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament, Bloomington, 2006, pp.206-207, no.67. 

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints