News & Commentary, Visual Arts

A Tale of Two Queens: The NGV’s Cleopatra by Tiepolo

| |

There is always more than one story nested in a narrative painting: the story the painter intended, (which until the 18th century usually involved some reworking of ancient myths, legends and religions as historical facts — remastered in contemporary fashions and settings) and the story of its acquisition by some patron, its sundry vicissitudes and final resting place. The National Gallery’s celebrated The Banquet of Cleopatra by Tiepolo is a perfect case to hand.

One of the most acquisitive monarchs of the 18th century was Russia’s Catherine the Great whose minions combed Europe for art for her private collection. In 1744, the year it was completed, The Banquet of Cleopatra — originally earmarked for an English collector who later became the British Consul in Venice –had been re-directed by the efforts of Francesco Algarotti: a wealthy Venetian wit, intriguer and entrepreneur, friend of Voltaire and confidante of Frederick the Great.

Catherine II of Russia by Johann Baptist von-Lampi-the-Elder
Catherine II of Russia by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder

Algarotti was instrumental in arranging the sale of Cleopatra and a number of other works by Tiepolo, to the courts of Dresden and Saxony (the latter presided over by Augustus III, King of Poland). Tiepolo received not only payment for the painting, but a gold snuff box for his efforts on behalf of the Polish royal art collection. Exactly 20 years later (1764) the ailing Augustus died and the following year, there was a public auction in Amsterdam from which Catherine, Empress of Russia — wishing to enlarge the Hermitage Collection — acquired the painting of a woman every bit as resourceful as herself.

When the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne found itself the recipient of the massively generous Felton Bequest in 1904 it was suddenly elevated in spending power to the ranks of international museums like the Metropolitan and the London’s National Gallery  and could even outbid them. By the height of the World Depression it had spent approximately £314,590 on world markets. In 1933 it acquired Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra for the sum of £31,375.

There was a commotion in Russia as well as Melbourne. Russian émigrés — some of whom had valuable collections confiscated to enrich the imperial Hermitage Collection in St Petersburg — saw the sale as emblematic of its dissolution and perhaps an end to their hopes of ever recovering their own treasures. The new Bolshevik regime, in need of hard currency, viewed the works as symbols of the discredited Tsarist regime and were ready to divest Russia of its treasures.

Francesco Algarotti 1712-1764
Francesco Algarotti 1712-1764

From 1929 to 1933, through private agents and envoys, a cavalcade of masterpieces found their way under a cloak of secrecy for vast sums into the hands of art dealers and collectors like Calouste Gulbenkian (who acquired Rembrandt’s Pallas Athenée) and Andrew Mellon who purchased –among others — van Eyck’s Annunciation and Raphael’s St George and the Dragon. Tiepolo’s Banquet was acquired by the London dealers, Colnaghi and Co., and offered for sale there. Those instrumental in acquiring the twelve foot by nine foot canvas for the Melbourne gallery were Sir Charles Holmes (the director of the National Gallery in London) and Randall Davies (a Melburnian and the Felton Bequest committee’s London adviser).

Tiepolo’s vast canvas arrived in Melbourne in November 1933. It had voyaged out on the Orient liner Orford, guarded night and day in a strong room, where the locks were examined by the ship’s officers each night. It was unveiled at the NGV to a large and curious crowd. The Bulletin remarked that its size attracted the interest of swarms of small boys who scampered through the galleries every day looking for Pharlap, and that “Cleopatra, born 69 B.C., appears somewhat unexpectedly with wasp-waist and Medici collar”.

Painter Daryl Lindsay, who arrived back in Australia from England in the same month as Cleopatra, and who had, for exercise, shovelled coal into the furnaces of the steamer Port Wellington for two weeks, fatuously pronounced the work “marred by bad composition … yet probably a very good example of the painter, who was never one of the greatest masters”. By far the most thoughtful examination of Tiepolo was by the critic and painter Blamire Young who noted that although Tiepolo was born in the 17th century, his mind anticipated the 18th, with its spirit of enquiry, and of Voltaire; a period when uncritical admiration of the great masters was to be tempered with a spirit of delicate clowning. “Tiepolo showed how this could be done, and he did it with such mastery that most of his contemporaries took it for the real thing.” Tiepolo, who once said “painters must try and succeed in large scale works capable of pleasing the noble and the rich, because it is they who make the fortune of the artists,” died in comfort and opulent surroundings as the royal painter at the court of Madrid at the age of 74.

The canvas depicts Cleopatra poised to dissolve one of her pearl earrings in a flute of vinegar; an unpalatable potion she will swallow and win her wager with Mark Antony  — to spend a greater fortune that her lover; the equivalent of ten million sesterces — at a single meal! This was not Tiepolo’s only rendering of Cleopatra’s fabled gesture (first told by Pliny a century after her death). It shares characteristics with the Cleopatra he was commissioned to paint in a series of frescoes for the wealthy Venetian family the Labias, whose forebears were best remembered for a sumptuous banquet at which guests were afterwards encouraged to hurl the gold plate into the canal.

In the best tradition of court painters, Tiepolo has flattered the patrons by re-inventing them — in their contemporary garments and surroundings — as historical characters. This would explain why the Labia’s Cleopatra has pale skin, is dressed in the height of Italian 18th century  fashion and festooned with pearls and gold-mounted cameos. There are many similarities between the Labia’s Cleopatra and the National Gallery of Victoria’s. Both are blonde, blue-eyed, and similarly attired in voluminous brocade. Both sit at the banquet table holding the giant pearl aloft and at arms length. Both are surrounded by a well dressed retinue of exotic characters. Even the halberds and the flute of vinegar are from the same prop department.

The Melbourne painting would the subject of much rancour. The inadvisability of spending £31,375 on “a mediocre Tiepolo” appeared to unite both the conservative and the modernist art worlds, and the newspapers had a field day. The Melbourne Herald ran a story titled “Is the Gallery 50 years behind?” the following year,  but today the painting is universally regarded as one of the finest prizes ever acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria and its worth is conservatively considered by many to be in the scores of millions.

[box]Main image: Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra (Detail).[/box]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *