(b. 1707, Venezia, d. 1769, Venezia)

Family of Darius before Alexander

Oil on canvas, 128 x 166 cm
Museum of Art, Dallas

This painting depicts one of the many events surrounding Alexander the Great's defeat of the Persian Emperor Darius in 330 BCE, which was one of the most popular narratives in 18th-century art. The motif held special interest for Francesco Fontebasso and his contemporaries for two reasons. First, the representation of people's varied reactions to Alexander's presence allowed for a systematic study of expression. Secondly, the historic subject was a favorite among their aristocratic patrons. It is believed that Family of Darius Before Alexander may have been one of a series of works which were executed to decorate the interior of the Palazzo Pola in Treviso.

Fontebasso chose to depict the interactions after the battle, when Alexander and Hephaestion visit Darius's imprisoned mother and wife. Based on the two men's similarly regal attire, the women mistook the latter for Alexander. Hephaestion gestures toward Alexander, attempting to end the confusion. Darius's wife is terribly moved by the sight of her husband's great enemy and is wiping her tears, while the two daughters and son look more interested than frightened.

This encounter had previously been depicted by several famed Venetian artists. The Renaissance painter Paulo Veronese produced his interpretation of this scene nearly two centuries prior to Fontebasso's version, but several features of the work suggest a close emulation of the elder's example. The composition and specific moment may have been familiar to Fontebasso through the famed images of Alexander with Darius's family created by Sebastiano Ricci and Giavanni Battista Tiepolo. All of these artists included a young boy holding a shield on the lower right and the bowing figure of the queen to the left of her husband's foes. Rather than Veronese's crisp, linear, architectural setting, Ricci and Fontebasso both placed the figures in a tented environment of colorful, textured fabrics.

Family of Darius before Alexander, is an excellent example of the Venetian Rococo style. Fontebasso's utilization of bold draughtsmanship and broad painting technique, with its thick impasto, give the painting its freshness, intensity, and vigor. The decorative scene seems to be taking place on stage and speaks of the exuberance and drama of the age. Like the work of Tiepolo, the painting is executed in the "Grand Manner," and unity is given to the composition by an intense, brilliant light which illuminates the entire surface of the work.