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Key facts
Full title Two Men in Oriental Costume
Artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Artist dates 1696 - 1770
Series Four Decorative Scenes
Date made about 1740-6
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 159.1 x 53.3 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1960
Inventory number NG6302
Location Room 39
Art route(s) C
Collection Main Collection
Two Men in Oriental Costume
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
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Two men stand huddled together. They wear stunning robes and headdresses made of sumptuous fabrics, both ‘oriental’ in style (from the Eastern Mediterranean). Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s lively outlines and visible brushstrokes emphasise the flamboyant sleeves and folds of their clothing. Hints of primary colours appear against more sombre tones, while the brilliant sunlight and subtle shade pick out the men’s expressive faces and textured beards. Tiepolo was immensely skilled at drawing faces, which is particularly noticeable here in the weathered complexion of the aged man closest to us.

This is one of four paintings that once decorated a room in the Palazzo Cornaro on the Campo San Polo, Venice. The figures are inspired by Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, a popular sixteenth-century poem that tells of the ill-fated love between a Christian knight (Rinaldo) and a Saracen sorceress (Armida). The characterful old man with a fluffy white beard is probably the magician of Ascalon who, after showing Rinaldo heroic images of warfare in a shield, lures him back to fight. The shield lies at the man’s feet and is a recurring motif in another painting from the same series, Rinaldo turning in Shame from the Magic Shield.

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Four Decorative Scenes

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These four narrow canvases were painted during the 1740s by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to decorate a room on the second floor of the Palazzo Cornaro on the Campo San Polo, Venice. Tiepolo was enjoying growing fame across Italy at this time; receiving prestigious commissions for monumental ceiling paintings and wall decorations.

The paintings formed part of a complex decorative scheme, with which a ceiling painting (now in Canberra) and four allegorical figures (now divided between New York and Amsterdam), have been associated. Tiepolo’s four paintings in the National Gallery – Rinaldo turning in Shame from the Magic Shield, Seated Man, Woman with Jar and Boy, Two Men in Oriental Costume and Two Orientals seated under a Tree – are inspired by Torquato Tasso’s popular sixteenth-century poem Jerusalem Delivered. Set during the First Crusade, a Christian military campaign to recapture Jerusalem from Islamic rule, the poem tells of the ill-fated love between the Saracen sorceress Armida and Rinaldo, a Christian knight. Tiepolo’s pale pastel tones and lively brushwork in these scenes create a dazzling and exotic atmosphere.