The world in front of the artwork

Tiepolo Banquet of Cleopatra

Where is the artwork?

Where an artwork is used, presented or displayed contributes to the meanings and ideas we associate with it. For example, seeing a religious artwork in a temple may suggest different meanings and ideas about the artwork than if we see it in a gallery.

In a gallery, exhibitions may focus on different aspects of an artwork – for example, an artwork might be presented in one exhibition as an example of portraiture, and in another as an example of a particular style of painting.

An artwork may become known to audiences through reproductions that add to the meanings and ideas around the artwork. For example, some artworks have been featured in advertisements or used in other ways in popular culture.

Some questions to think about
  • Where is the artwork exhibited? How does this contribute to the meanings and ideas associated with it?
  • Where has the artwork been exhibited before? How have these locations contributed to the meanings or ideas associated with the artwork?
  • What context was the artwork made for? Is this different to its current context?

For example:
The Banquet of Cleopatra is a highlight of the Gallery’s Collection and is displayed with other European paintings of the same period. In this photograph we see it displayed in the Gallery with another painting by Tiepolo (on loan from the National Gallery of Australia) and a painting from the NGV Collection, The finding of Moses by Tiepolo.

The Banquet of Cleopatra was acquired from Tiepolo’s studio for the collection of Augustus III(1696–1763), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland,  as part of a plan to add some ‘modern’ art to the King’s art collection. It was hung on the wall of his hunting lodge. 

By the early 19thcentury, the painting had entered the Russian imperial collections; Tsar Paul I had it placed on a ceiling in his castle in St Petersburg.

What’s happened since the artwork was made?

Over time, significant events, and changing values and ideas can contribute to the meanings and ideas associated with an artwork. For example, current concerns about war or the environment may inform how we see and understand historical artworks related to these themes.

Research into an artwork can bring new ideas or meanings. For example, research may lead to an artwork being attributed to another artist. Sometimes controversy, such as debate about the price of an artwork or its subject matter, can also add to the meanings and ideas that are associated the artwork.

Some questions to think about
  • Have there been significant events since this artwork was made that have contributed to the meanings and ideas associated with it?
  • How have values or ideas since the artwork was made influenced the meanings and ideas associated with the artwork?

For example:
By the late 19th century, The Banquet of Cleopatra had entered the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.  The Stalinist government that came to power in Russia in 1924 did not approve of the painting’s themes of extravagance and excess and it was among a number of artworks that were eventually offered for sale by the Soviet authorities.
The painting was purchased by the Gallery in 1932 and has been on almost constant display since.

Who has seen the artwork?

The person looking at an artwork contributes to the meanings and ideas associated with it. The opinions of art critics and historians can be influential but everyone, including you, have their own views, opinions and responses to an artwork informed by personal experience and ideas.

Writers and artists often make personal responses to artworks that add to the meanings or ideas associated with the artwork.

Some questions to think about
  • How have people responded to this artwork, for example art experts, the general public, artists or writers? Suggest reasons for their responses.
  • What are your own views, opinions and responses to this artwork?

For example:
The Banquet of Cleopatra has been the subject of extensive research and commentary by art experts. In2002, NGV conservators cleaned and revarnished the painting, revealing the luminosity of the colours and contrasts of tone that had been dulled by the old varnish layer.

In 2003, the painting was the subject of a book which provided new insights into its history, including the negotiations that led to the Gallery’s acquisition of the painting.

Jaynie Anderson (2003) Tiepolo’s Cleopatra, Macmillan, Melbourne

Artists and writers have responded creatively to the painting, including John Forbes in his poem On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra, and a group of Melbourne artists who in 2008 created their own version of the painting featuring contemporary characters.


Giambattista Tiepolo

The Banquet of Cleopatra

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Alex, Ben and Zack go behind the scenes at NGV and find out more about art and the Gallery

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