The love affair between the Roman consul Mark Antony (83–30 BC) and the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was a popular subject for artists in the eighteenth century. The episode represented in Tiepolo’s painting is drawn from Pliny’s Natural History (written in AD 77). Here Pliny recounted the tale of a famous contest between the Egyptian and Roman rulers whereby Cleopatra wagered that she could stage a feast more lavish than the legendary excesses of Mark Antony.
Tiepolo shows the dramatic moment at the end of Cleopatra’s repast when, faced with a still scornful Mark Antony, she wins the wager with her trump card. Removing one of a pair of priceless pearl earrings, Cleopatra dissolves it in a glass of vinegar and drinks it, thereby causing Mark Antony to lose his bet. The Banquet of Cleopatra was purchased directly from Tiepolo’s Venice studio in early 1744, by Count Francesco Algarotti, for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. The artist was paid three hundred zecchini for the painting, which was then dispatched to Dresden (and, subsequently, to the elector’s hunting lodge at Hubertusburg), remaining in the royal collections of Saxony until 1765. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, The Banquet of Cleopatra had entered the Russian imperial collections, and was for a time placed on a ceiling within the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg. Later it was transferred to the Hermitage Palace, where it remained until sold to the National Gallery of Victoria by the Soviet authorities in 1932.
The reframing in 1955 of Tiepolo’s, The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743 (acquired in 1933) is possibly the earliest re-framing project in the eighteenth century collection.
The project appears to have been initiated by A.J.L.McDonnell (London Felton advisor) when the painting was sent to London for exhibition at the Royal Academy and later, cleaning by Horace Buttery in 1954/5.
The frame that was replaced in 1955 was not the original frame for the painting. Surviving documents tell us that on 10 February 1744 Count Algarotti paid for a frame for The Banquet of Cleopatra and on 5 March 1744 the artist was paid 300 zecchini for the painting, which was then dispatched to Dresden. No record has come to light detailing the form of the original frame.
When it was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1933, it came in a nineteenth century classical revival scotia frame, most likely made in Russia, the painting having been there from c.1800 to 1933. The frame appears in a newspaper cutting from the Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, Wednesday August 8, 1934.
A.J.L. McDonnell wrote to the Secretary of The Felton Bequests Committee, 25 November 1954, commenting on the Tiepolo being on display in Gallery III at the Royal Academy and adding “ It’s present frame is a completely undistinguished 19th Century one, with a plaster moulding, quite unsuited to such a picture. It would obviously be very difficult ever to find an original 18th Century Venetian frame for it, but a completely satisfactory one could be made.”
In February 1955 Director Daryl Lindsay wrote to McDonnell in London suggesting £300 be set aside for a new frame. “I know Pollak is the best man for a job of this kind, but he is awfully expensive and I would think that Bourlet or one of the other good firms would be able to turn out a good frame.”
In the end the negotiations were with Pollak, suggesting McDonnell may have had significant influence in the project. A frame design and profile drawing were sent from Pollak to Lindsay April 1955. Lindsay replied to Pollak 11 March 1955, returning the design and profile and providing another design from himself and Harley Griffiths – based on a seventeenth century Italian frame in the collection (unidentified) and noting that the Pollak design was similar to the frame on the Pittoni (2360-4) which Lindsay and Griffiths thought ‘would not look quite right on the Tiepolo.’ In the end the decision was left to McDonnell and Pollak to resolve in London.
The frame that came back from London with the painting in 1955 is in the manner of a Canaletto style frame from the eighteenth century and very similar to the frame on the Pittoni. The invoice for the frame, from F.A.Pollak, 6, Blue Ball Yard, London, S.W.1., June 1955, is for ‘One carved gold frame made for picture by Giov. B. Tiepolo £350.’ (In 1953 Lindsay had bought four Italian Renaissance frames in London for £630.00.)
We should consider the Tiepolo frame as a choice made by McDonnell and Pollak rather than reflecting the preference of Lindsay.
It is a cleverly made frame and an appropriate stylistic choice. The frame is carved in solid timber, gilded and distressed.
It is a well resolved example of the frame making skills of Frederick Pollak.
The painting was cleaned and restored in 2002-03.
Frederick Pollak was commissioned to make several frames for the collection in 1954. Rembrandt, Portrait of a white haired man; Studio of Rembrandt, Self portrait; Marmion, Virgin and Child; After van Eyck, Madonna and Child.
carved wood and gold leaf
Good original condition.