Dated by Knox to circa 1754-62, the drawings in this series are among the artist’s most accomplished and beautiful studies in pen and ink and wash. The much admired group is not connected to any known painted scheme and nor does any individual sheet appear to relate to any surviving painting; they seem to have been drawn entirely for their own sake.
The celebrated series of some 76 drawings seems to have been contained in an album supposedly given by the artist to the Library of the Somasco Convent in Venice (see Provenance). This early provenance came to light when an album of drawings, which included mainly variations of the Holy Family subject, were exhibited and sold at the Savile Gallery, London, in May 1928. The Savile catalogue reproduced an inscription written by Edward Cheney on the inside of the front cover which provided the early provenance of the album.2 It is not clear whether the Barnet drawing was part of the Savile group - it is not reproduced in the catalogue - but not all the drawings were illustrated and some are simply described as The Holy Family, making their firm identification impossible.
The Barnet Holy Family depicts St Joseph kneeling at the Virgin’s side, while she supports the Christ Child on her knee. The Virgin leans back towards Joseph and with her left arm gestures towards the Christ Child. Giovanni Battista has created a harmonious grouping, where he has successfully united the family unit using expressive and lyrical lines. The artist has chosen to focus on the main figures, with only the semblance of a tree behind the group. Other drawings in the series do sometimes more other figures and some have more extensive backgrounds, but these are always subordinated to the central figures.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s mastery of line and delicate application of wash produce a light and other-worldly touch. His figures, lightly sketched out in black chalk first, do seem to float, as Knox observed, and take on a celestial quality. Tiepolo cleverly maximizes the impact of the white surface of the paper, his natural light source, perfectly combining it with his application of pen and wash to achieve sparkling results.
1. Tiepolo. A Bicentenary Exhibition 1770-1970. Drawings, mainly from American collections by Giambattista Tiepolo and the members of his circle, exhib. cat., Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum, 1970, under no. 89
2. G. Knox, Catalogue of the Tiepolo Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1960, p. 6
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