The Chariot of Aurora

The chariot of Aurora, goddess of the dawn, ascends into the sky to begin a new day. Sunflowers turn toward the light, while a bat flees with the darkness. A winged boy, or putto, awakens Aurora’s brother, the sun god Helios.

The broad brushstrokes and small scale of this canvas suggest that it was made as a sketch for a larger painting. Its subject matter would have been perfectly appropriate for the ceiling of a bedroom in an opulent eighteenth-century home.

The eighteenth-century Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo enjoyed an international reputation; commissions for decorative projects came from both the church and private patrons as far away as Germany and Spain. These often monumental works were either frescoes or oil paintings, for he was equally adept in both media.

The relatively small size of this canvas and the fluid, rapidly applied brushstrokes are typical of Tiepolo’s oil sketches, of which he produced hundreds. Some were preparatory sketches; others recorded completed commissions. Although this is a study for a large-scale painting, no such work has been identified. The design was apparently meant for a ceiling painting because the figures are foreshortened as if seen from below. Tiepolo was a master decorator of ceilings. Typically he created an expansive light-filled sky crowded with floating religious, mythological, or historical figures, depending on the commission. The winged figure in the upper left is Aurora, the goddess of dawn, rising into the night sky in her horse-drawn chariot. On the rocky outcrop below, a cherub awakens Aurora’s brother, Helios, the sun god. The sky, still strewn with stars, is about to be transformed by the glorious oranges and yellows of the sunrise that lights one of three sunflowers with its first rays. Nearby, a bat, the final creature of the night, takes flight.

Tiepolo’s Aurora is based on Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a widely used reference book of classical and mythological personifications, published in 1611. Tiepolo often referred to it for descriptions of his subjects. The depiction of Aurora, for example, follows the Iconologia with her yellow dress, flesh-colored wings, the flaming torch in her left hand, and the flower petals that she sprinkles on the earth below.

—Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 32.


[Rodolfo Subert, Milan, sold to Boussod, Valadon & Cie., Paris, 10 April 1912];[1][1] [Boussod, Valadon & Cie., Paris, sold to M. Knoedler & Co., Paris, 12 October 1917]; [M. Knoeder & Co, Paris, sold to Clark, 29 March 1918]; Robert Sterling Clark (1918-1955); Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1955. 

[1][1] Boussod, Valadon& Cie. stock book entry notes that the firm purchased the painting in joint account with Wildenstein, Paris.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Italian, 1696–1770

The Chariot of Aurora

c. 1734

Oil on canvas

19 7/16 x 19 1/8 in. (49.3 x 48.6 cm)

Acquired by Sterling Clark,1918