Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s: Pietro Longhi’s Venetian spectacle

Old Master Painting’s week in New York is held from 25-30 January.  Here the luminary auction houses and dealers pull out their best kit in order to dazzle the world.   Sotheby’s in particular, has an exciting sale.
I love Italian painting from the 18th century – a time when tourists flocked to Rome, Florence and Venice as part of their “educational” Grand Tour, much like college graduates do today.  Unlike them though, many a British lord came home with a Canaletto view of the Grand Canal in Venice as a reminder of his time on the Continent.  Others brought home more exotic souvenirs, like this marvelous painting by Pietro Longhi (1702-1785).
A group of Venetian revelers have come to see what must have indeed been quite the sight in Europe at the time … an Indian elephant.  I can’t even think of a remotely similar experience today.  I guess perhaps a captured martian?  Anyhoo, this was such an event in 1774, that the artist was actually contracted to paint 4 different versions with different groups of spectators (presumably those in the party of the commissioning patron).
Known for scenes of a Venetian life filled with parties, gambling and womanizing, Longhi also completed a number of similar commissions commemorating other equally jaw-dropping visits to Venice: a rhinoceros in 1751 and a lion in 1762.
Unlike suffering saints in contorted poses or naked nymphs frolicking al fresco, this is the type of Old Master painting that is easily collectable these days because even though the subject is a non-event for us, we can still identify with that feeling of awe in discovering something for the first time.
image credit: Sotheby’s, New York.  Important Old Master Paintings, lot 78, Pietro Longhi, The Elephant, oil on canvas.  Estimate US$ 700,000 – 900,000. To be sold on 31 January 2013. The entire sale is open to the public from 25-30 January 2013.