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Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Biography, Paintings & Drawings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What if you could spend your whole life doing what you loved? That's the case with 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. In this lesson, explore Tiepolo's life and work, including his paintings and drawings.

Early Years: Establishing an Art Career

Some people know what they want to do with their life, and they do it well. That was true of 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, renowned in his lifetime for his energetic work and engaging personality.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 - 1770) was born in Venice, Italy into a prosperous family. As a boy Tiepolo displayed artistic talent, and his mother apprenticed him to a decorative painter in Venice. Tiepolo also studied works of older Venetian painters and made etchings of 16th century images to learn composition and form. He was dedicated, enthusiastic and a hard worker. By 1717, he had opened his own painting studio. By 1719 he felt confident enough in his career stability to marry the sister of another artist. The couple had nine children.

Early in his career, Tiepolo experimented with artistic styles and painted in dark colors. Then he shifted to lighter, brighter colors and the dynamic compositions that became his hallmarks. This fit well with the predominant art style at the time, Rococo. Rococo began in France in the 18th century and spread throughout Europe. It was extremely elegant and light, with plentiful ornamentation. Tiepolo painted near the end of the Rococo period, but his work became identified with the style.

Artist of Imagination and Skill

Tiepolo was an excellent draftsman and painter who worked with amazing speed. He used his great imagination to address wide-ranging subject matter, taking ideas from literature, history, mythology, allegory and religion.

Sketch by Tiepolo done in ink and wash
Tiepolo sketch

When planning a painting, Tiepolo created many preliminary sketches and drawings. In some, he worked out large elements of compositions. In others, he concentrated on things like drapery, the relation of figures to each other or facial expressions. His drawings, with quick lines, washes of shadow and strokes of shading, display his skill.

Drawing of a head by Tiepolo, in red and white chalk on grey paper
Drawing by Tiepolo

Tiepolo was energetic and amiable, and patrons enjoyed working with him. On the flip side, he irked other artists because he didn't seem to suffer for his art. Tiepolo wasn't the stereotypical artist-as-tortured soul. He liked to work, enjoyed painting and liked working with people.

Painter of Frescoes

Tiepolo became prominent during his lifetime. Through the 1720s, he concentrated on oil painting and his work was in great demand. He created paintings for wealthy and important families in Venice and throughout Europe, including kings of France and England and the czarina in Russia.

Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity by Tiepolo, circa 1737, oil painting by Tiepolo
painting by Tiepolo

After the 1720s, Tiepolo became known for frescoes. A fresco is a painting on a wall or ceiling done by working directly into wet plaster. It was an ancient art form, but Tiepolo took it to new levels. His skillful compositions connected elements of scenes across wide expanses of ceilings and created the illusion that scenes extended into the sky beyond. Tiepolo's figures were often idealized, full of energy and emotion. Sometimes he showed them in foreshortened views. Foreshortening is a way of portraying a figure so that it seems to recede in space. Tiepolo's foreshortened figures added to his works' drama. Tiepolo was expert at rendering varied textures, including soft clouds, drapery folds, and the human form.

Study of figures for part of a fresco, by Tiepolo
Tiepolo oil sketch

Around 1750, following Venetian political turmoil and an economic downturn, Tiepolo traveled abroad for the first time in his life. He went to Wurtzburg, Germany, where he painted what some scholars consider his greatest works. In the Imperial Hall, the palace of a member of the royalty in Wurtzburg, Tiepolo painted two large frescos with subjects from history and mythology, one on the dining-room ceiling and another above the grand entry hallway. The dining room fresco was one of the largest in the world, encompassing more than 7,000 square feet. The project took more than three years, and was finally completed around 1753.

One of the Wurtzburg Imperial Hall frescoes by Tiepolo
Wurtzburg fresco

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