The Italian artist Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804) was one of nine children of the great 18th-century Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). He spent the first half of his life by his father’s side, assisting him with commissions as they travelled across Europe together.
Domenico worked with his father on the interior decorative schemes for the Würzburg Residence and Villa Valmarana near Vicenza, as well as a spectacular series of trompe l’oeil frescoes for the throne room of Charles III at the Royal Palace in Madrid.
‘By the 1740s, the younger Tiepolo had also begun making his own work, often on biblical themes,’ explains Christie’s Old Master Drawings specialist Stijn Alsteens. ‘But it was after 1770, when his father died in Madrid, that Domenico’s art came into its own, especially with three great series of pen and wash drawings.’ Of the three series, Domenico’s masterpiece is undoubtedly Divertimento per li regazzi (‘Entertainment for Children’), also known as the ‘Punchinello’ series.
Consisting of 104 signed and numbered pages (plus a title page now kept at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City), the 1790s work follows the life of Punchinello, a hook-nosed, humpbacked clown whose origins lie in Neapolitan popular theatre or commedia dell’arte. Punchinello was the inspiration for the British puppet character Punch, of Punch and Judy fame.
The title sheet, along with 102 pages from the series — which Alsteens likens to a comic novel — were discovered unbound in 1920 at an auction in London. They were bought by the Colnaghi gallery for £610.
The group was subsequently sold to Richard Owen, a British dealer based in Paris, who exhibited them in full in 1921 at the city’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Not long afterwards he began to sell off the sheets in small groups, or sometimes individually.
‘It wasn’t until the 1986 publication of Adelheid Gealt’s book, Domenico Tiepolo: The Punchinello Drawings, that the series was ever documented and reproduced in full,’ says Alsteens.
Today, many of the sheets from the series are in museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cleveland Museum of Art both have nine, five are at the Morgan Library and two are in the J. Paul Getty Museum. The British Museum holds two more; the Ashmolean and the Louvre one each.
On 3 December 2019, during Classic Week in London, Christie’s sold six drawings from the series — all acquired from Owen by the British art historian Sir Brinsley Ford — for a combined £3,871,500. Lot 45, Punchinellos feasting, sold for £995,250 alone, more than triple its low estimate.
On 27 May 2020, Christie’s in Paris sold a seventh, Punchinello in the company of a lady with two children and a horse, for €562,000.
Now, as part of Christie’s Classic Art Evening Sale in London on 29 July 2020, another three drawings from the series — also from Ford’s collection — will be offered, with low estimates from £150,000 to £300,000.
The first sheet, above, which doesn’t have a number, shows a young Punchinello learning to walk with the aid of a stroller.
One of several early childhood scenes from the series, it also features Punchinello’s family members wearing his signature costume, including his tall, white ‘sugar loaf’ hat.
The second sheet, below, which is number 53 from the series, shows a group of mischievous Punchinellos working in a barber’s shop. On the left, a seated dandy looks understandably concerned. On the wall behind, a painting of the Madonna and Child resembles an image painted many times by Tiepolo’s father.
In both drawings, the characters stand on a shallow stage and move parallel to the picture plane, adding a sense of theatre to the drawings.
The exact meaning of the third sheet, number 43 from the series, below, remains unclear, but it shows a group of Punchinellos digging a grave.
The cow at the bottom right of this solemn picture can be seen in reverse at the centre of a different drawing by Tiepolo, now housed at The Met.
‘The Punchinello series is Tiepolo’s last and greatest work,’ says Alsteens. ‘We don't know why he made them, or who they were intended for, but these drawings were created as the 18th century was coming to a close and the artist’s native Venetian Republic was in decline. They celebrate and mourn the end of Venice’s sense of frivolity.’