During the brilliant artistic flowering in 18th-century Venice, the two most important figure painters were Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta. In his early years, Tiepolo was strongly influenced by Piazzetta, though his fiery and luminous fantasy later diverged from Piazzetta’s contemplative and elegant naturalism.
Piazzetta’s art was wide-ranging, and included intensely felt religious works, images from ancient history, illustrations for books of all types, and idyllic genre scenes. The latter were characterized by sensitive portrayals of young men and women, usually in pastoral or other ordinary costumes and frequently with tender romantic overtones. Like John Donne and other British 17th-century poets, Piazzetta created works of profound and deeply moving spirituality but also of light-hearted dalliance.
Piazzetta first became famous for his drawings, and among his many works on paper, he was well-known for his nearly life-sized heads and busts rendered in black and white chalk on Venetian blue paper. We know from inventories and other records that these character heads were immediately prized by his contemporaries and were framed and glazed to hang in rooms like finished paintings. In fact, these works were perhaps the earliest type of drawings to be so consistently collected and displayed, which also explains why their paper has changed color from extended exposure to light, softening from blue to gray-green or tan.
A Young Man Embracing a Girl is one of the finest of all Piazzetta’s drawings of genre subjects. It epitomizes his vision of the tender love between a young man and a young woman. The fresh-faced boy holds the girl’s shoulder protectively as he gazes boldly ahead. The beautiful girl demurely lowers her face and eyelids, but she makes a subtly provocative gesture: her forefinger grasps the boy's shoulder, but the other three fingers are doubled under as if in gentle resistance. The drawing likely also had a personal significance for the artist, as the female model was almost certainly his daughter, Barbara, just coming of age.
At the time, this drawing was recognized as a masterpiece. It was immediately made into a full-sized engraving by Giovanni Cattini, a prominent Venetian printmaker, which was then copied by an Augsburg artist in mezzotint, later recreated as an engraving by an artist in Munich, and finally rendered as a color woodcut by an English artist living in Venice. The renown of this drawing today is enhanced by its superb condition, with the whites brilliant and the blacks preserved with a thick, velvety richness.
H.A. Vivian Smith (his sale, Christie's, London, 20 May 1955, no. 43). Curtis O. Baer, by 1958; by descent to Dr. and Mrs. George M. Baer, Atlanta and Mexico City; by descent to Katherine and Alexandra Baer, Washington and Wallkill (NY); gift to the National Gallery, 2010.
- Drawings from The Collection of Curtis O. Baer, The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 1958, no. 11.
- Drawings from New York Collections III: The Eighteenth Century in Italy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1971, no. 38.
- Piazzetta: A Tercentenary Exhibition of Drawings, Prints, and Books, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1983, no. 45.
- The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, Royal Academy of Arts, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994-1995, no. 63.
- The Poetry of Light - La poesia della luce: Venetian Drawings from the National Gallery of Art, Museo Correr, Venice, Venice, 2014 - 2015, no. 60.
- Drawings from the Collection of Curtis O. Baer. Exh. cat. Cambridge, MA, 1958: 23-24.
- Bean, Jacob and Felice Stampfle. Drawings from New York Collections III: The Eighteenth Century in Italy. New York, 1971: 33 and pl. 38.
- Mariuz, Adriano.L'opera completa del Piazzetta. Milan: Rizzoli, 1982, no. D15.
- Piazzetta, A Tercentenary Exhibition of Drawings, Prints, and Books. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1983: 46-47.
- The Glory of Venice. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Museo del Settecento Veneziano - Ca'Rezzonico, Venice; Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, 1994-1995: no. 63.
- Robison, Andrew. "Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, A Young Man Embracing a Girl." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 45 (Fall 2011): 28-29 (color).