From his earliest years as an artist, the drawings of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) were recognized as exceptional and were highly prized by collectors. In response, he made numerous drawings—studies of simple figures as well as compositions—as finished works for sale or presentation. The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, c. 1726, is a very different thing: it is a true exploratory drawing, created to elaborate and refine a composition in preparation for making a large-scale painting or fresco. In fact, it is one of the finest such examples of Tiepolo's work in the United States.
Here Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, is poised to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to atone for offending the goddess Artemis, who had stilled the winds needed to carry his fleet to war. The drawing dates from Tiepolo's early maturity, when he began his career as a classic history painter in the heroic mode. Soon afterward, he switched to the lighter, more rococo style that became his trademark.
This early drawing already shows Tiepolo's furious speed of draftsmanship, especially in the black chalk underdrawing, which seems to dash across the page as fast as the artist's ideas sprang to mind. Such underdrawing was frequently erased from his pen-and-ink wash works for collectors, but in this study for his own use we can track his multiple shifts and developments. For example, he elaborated four positions for Iphigenia's head—by moving it farther and farther to the left, he enhanced the exposure of her neck and thus her vulnerability to the sacrificial knife. Her father stands at the right, weeping for having given in to Artemis' gruesome demand.
Tiepolo gave this scene two creative iconographic aspects. The priest's rigidly extended arm mirrors a similar gesture by figures in several early paintings, including Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers from the Gallery's Kress Collection. Here it has the distinctive effect of spreading the priest's bright cloak to form a backdrop for Iphigenia, reminiscent of the protectively spread cloak of the Virgin in the traditional scene of the Misericordia. Further, Tiepolo quickly sketched a female figure at top left; in the common version of the story, she would have been the repentant Artemis flying in on a cloud with a stag to substitute for Iphigenia. In the end, however, Tiepolo left that figure out. He thus brought his picture close to the tragic version of the story represented in Euripides' play, when the noble princess shows the strength of ancient virtue and allows herself to be sacrificed for the sake of her country.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia is a fine addition to the Gallery's collection, offering valuable insights into the art of an 18th-century master draftsman.