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Two Men in Oriental Costume
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

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 the 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 panels that once decorated the Cornaro family’s villa in northern Italy. The shield lying at their feet could be a reference to another panel in same series, Rinaldo turning in Shame from the Magic Shield, which illustrates an episode in Jerusalem Delivered, a famous poem by Torquato Tasso.

Key facts
Artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Artist dates 1696 - 1770
Full title Two Men in Oriental Costume
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 in Gallery Room 39
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Four Decorative Scenes

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Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted these four narrow panels during the 1740s for a Venetian palazzo near Merlengo, northern Italy. At this time Tiepolo was enjoying growing fame across Italy, and receiving prestigious commissions for monumental ceiling paintings and wall decorations in grand palaces.

The paintings were inspired by Torquato Tasso’s popular sixteenth-century poem Jerusalem Delivered, which was set during the First Crusade, a Christian military campaign to recapture Jerusalem from Islamic rule. However, Rinaldo turning in Shame from the Magic Shield is the only panel in the series with an identifiable story: the ill-fated love of the Muslim sorceress Armida and Rinaldo, a Christian knight.

The other panels – Seated Man, Woman with Jar and Boy, Two Men in Oriental Costume and Two Orientals seated under a Tree – include objects and types of people found in Tasso’s poem. In all of the paintings, Tiepolo’s pale pastel tones and soft brushstrokes create a dazzling atmosphere.

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