Rachel Cohen

Tiepolo Opening

Tiepolo Opening

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, oil sketch, 1760s. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

I’ve long had it in mind to write a bit about Tiepolo – Venetian artist of the 18th century – an artist I’m trying to catch up to, one I suspect is in my future.

It’s the turn of the year. We are back from driving to see friends and family. As we drove the highways, we looked for horses. On and near lucent rivers, we looked for swans.

It’s raining. Most of the garden did well in our absence, a few things are withered and brown. The school year, unlike any other, will begin for our family the day after tomorrow.

Tiepolo painted myths and allegories, and painted religious paintings as if they were myths and allegories. He painted on ceilings and he painted the life of skies. He is a sort of intersection between the interests of our two children – our son who loves the vastness of astronomy, rockets, skyscrapers, our daughter who loves the magical endless patterns of myth.

Tiepolo, Allegory of the Planets and Continents, large oil sketch, 1752, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo Rachel Cohen.

Across the country, museums are reopening. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopened this past week. Our own Art Institute of Chicago has been open for several weeks, and I hope to go in the next weeks to see two shows that promise to be wonderful, the El Grecos and the Monets. El Greco’s sense of height and sky and cloudy mediation having offered much to Tiepolo. Tiepolo’s palette, brushwork, reflective sense of light having offered much to Monet.

Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, large oil sketch, 1760s, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo Rachel Cohen.

Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

I can hear the children downstairs – he is tracking which human buildings reach above the “rising condensation line,” the line of the clouds; she is following the taxonomy and hybridization of impossible creatures – vulturecrocs, and kinds of unicorns.

The sense is of aperture – the opening and closing of spaces and the stream of creations flowing through.


Nearly ten years ago, I read a wonderful book on Tiepolo, by Roberto Calasso, called Tiepolo Pink. I was struck by its insights and began to promise myself to look more at Tiepolo. In 2014, I was in New York and did look closely at the Met’s wonderful Tiepolos. I took this picture of the large oil sketch from 1752 that was the basis of one of Tiepolo’s most celebrated ceilings, the Allegory of the Planets and Continents, in Wurzberg.

And I took four pictures of The Chariot of Aurora, another oil sketch, of the 1760s, for a commission never painted.

Look at the aperture, the skies erupting upward.

Look at the chariot of dawn, and at Ceres with his sheaf of wheat, who gave his name to a dwarf planet, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.

At the figure of Time, ancient and robed in blue, at the swans.

Tiepolo's Time

Tiepolo039s Time

Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, 1760s

Reading Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink persuaded me to look carefully, for the first time, at the Tiepolo oil sketches that fill almost a room at the Metropolitan Museum. As ever, I had less time than I would have liked. Was astonished by their upwardness. Sense of being drawn up into the sky – the whole company, nymphs and swans and chariots upward, upward, into the vast swirl of the heavens.

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Calasso’s book in a revelatory sense about time.  Father Time a recurring figure in Tiepolo’s oeuvre – and shown here.  I believe the older man in blue between cherub and swans.  (The hours are with Aurora in her chariot.)

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The sensation of time in looking at these oil sketches was very peculiar.  In the heavens, the time is divine time, the time of myths and disporting, and this time is circular, though not without sequence. Particular moments have been shown, dramatic moments, but the whole story, known to the gods, if not to us, is implicit there.    

This is part of the feeling of mystery, the story is known, but it is not clear that it will be known to us, as we might like to believe, “in the fullness of time.”  Can’t escape the feeling that these powerful inscrutable faces, intent on the project of carrying forward day and light, are in an intractable relationship with the narrative flow of their story in a way that does not even resemble the way we recount the incidents of our days to one another.

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