When I was a kid, I remember there was a season during which this was my favorite painting. Memory is fickle, of course. I don’t know whether the season of my enthusiasm lasted a week or an afternoon. I also don’t recall whether or not I had ever seen the actual painting. It belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where we were visitors from time to time. But my mother also owned a book on the museum’s “highlights,” and I liked to pour over the book during island moments of my childhood.
Certainly my choice of a favorite wasn’t fashionable. Tiepolo hasn’t really been on anybody’s Top Forties List since the 1750s when this picture was painted. But children don’t care about things like that. Children love or hate with great abandon and with no respect for ceremony. Pondering this now, I must say the subject matter looks rather politically incorrect. And I can only surmise now what it was that attracted my childish attention then. My guess is that I was reeled in on a draughtsman’s line.
Drawing in Tiepolo’s works is so crisp. The shapely arms and hands of the seated woman and the forceful, aggressive gesture of her would-be attacker (we might call him her alleged assailant) arrive on the canvas by means of the most thorough-going and keen sense of contour. The artist’s love for dynamic, sinuous line is equally evident in a subordinate feature such as the rolling folds of the woman’s bright skirt.
If it happened that I had seen the actual canvas in childhood, I was no doubt impressed by scale, too. Size matters. This painting is 55 x 43 inches. A large enough oval to command one’s respect — one that puts these persons quite resolutely into the dramatic space of the room.
It’s not a family-themed picture. From this distance in time, the museum seems unsure what to make of its narrative, calling the painting simply: “Scene from Ancient History,” though historian John Walker in the National Gallery’s 1975 catalog was venturesome enough to call it “Timocleia and the Thracian Commander.” Enterprising readers can google that to see what pops up. Suffice it to say, judging by visual clues alone, male violence is a central theme. The soldier’s shoulder is the pivot point of the whole composition. What befell poor Timocleia, I cannot say.
But I doubt I contemplated the question of its story very deeply. I had as much narrative as my mother’s book provided — that catalog dated from 1941 when art historians were more garrulous. The book now resides in another state, so I’ll have to get back to you regarding this cliff-hanger (in perhaps some future post). Meanwhile, I suspect that my chief delight was visual. In even Tiepolo’s violent image the bright, vivid colors abound — held tightly and tensely inside Tiepolo’s razor sharp lines.
Kids aren’t fashionable, and thus they provide a model for every artist to emulate. A child likes what she likes, and artists do well to reserve the same whimsical and fervent emotions as their privilege. The heart doesn’t really enjoy being asked to obey rules. If you find yourself loving all the gauche things, care not. You cannot fool your true self. In finding what binds you to the world, you have to indulge some self-acceptance.
My first love for incisive line began somewhere rather near Venice of the 18th century. On the map of my early enthusiasm I place a big “X” to mark Gallery 32 where Tiepolo’s painting hangs.
You have to know these things about yourself. You have to discover what really matters, for from out of those things your own imagination’s designs grow.
[Top of the Post: Scene from Ancient History, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1750, Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art in Washington]