Fantasy and devotion

On the face of it, it is hard to imagine two stories with less in common than A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Biblical narrative of Pharoah's daughter discovering an Israelite baby hidden in the flags on the bank of the river Nile. And yet that inspired Venetian painter-decorator of the 18th century, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) was not only capable of imagining the Bible story as taking place in a fantasy world not far removed from the realm of Titania and Oberon, he was also more than able to paint it so that its unbelievableness becomes somehow delightfully -- even elevatingly -- credible.

His 16th-century predecessor, Veronese, had painted the same subject, and Tiepolo shows that he was not only aware of this but wanted his painting to breathe a similar atmosphere. If he had been confronted, like Veronese, by the Inquisition, there can be little doubt that the same accusation of unsuitableness would have been leveled at some of his religious paintings, this among them. So many of the ingredients are similar to Veronese -- the courtly finery, the rich colors, the light-hearted pleasure in feminine beauty, even such cheerful irrelevancies as the elegant hounds or absurd pet dogs. In this painting, Pharoah's daughter's graceful hauteur, her superiority, is dramatically emphasized by her tallness, by her place in the composition, and by her contrast in appearance with the entirely theatrical duenna and court ''dwarf.''

Did Tiepolo know how unauthentic his setting and costumes were? His princess is gloriously attired for a tableau in some 16th-century pageant. Moses' older sister, on the other hand, somewhat overlooked by the train of elevated personages as she suggests fetching her mother to nurse the baby) is dressed in a simple, but splendidly blue, shift which might pass for something vaguely biblical or classical. A few palm trees are thrown in for good measure down by the river, but the landscape is mainly Italian and alpine rather than Egyptian. Pages, ladies-in-waiting and pikemen (one pikeman is now missing, along with an extension of the river scenery and a couple of distant fishermen, cut off as a separate picture from the right edge of the canvas) complete this wonderful display of anachronisms.

If Tiepolo knew about these inaccuracies, he quite enchantingly and obviously didn't care.

Master of the fresco, and in particular the cloudscapes and flying figures of rococo palace ceilings, what mattered most to him throughout his long career, was the glorious light- and air-filled exaltation of an imaginary universe of apotheosis and praise and allegory, of triumphs and angelic jubilations, of celestial reaches peopled by flying figures -- of cosmic, mythical adventures.

''The Finding of Moses,'' painted no later than 1740, and possibly earlier, is a large oil on canvas. Michael Levey has written about it in terms of its ''glossy application of paint . . . the smooth line and touch, the brilliant but undramatic coloring.'' He characterized its painter as ''young'' and ''confident'' and a ''master of the charade.'' It is a picture filled with a strange joyfulness, and a lofty dignification of the stately which is so convincing and entrancing that it might almost be mistaken for the sublime.

An immensely successful artist, Tiepolo was described by a contemporary as ''full of wit, willing to please . . . and astonishingly quick.'' His happy genius seems to have come to him as easily and weightlessly as flight to birds - or at least that is the remarkable feeling communicated by his works.

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