Exhibition | Looking Up: Studies for Ceilings, 1550–1800

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on January 26, 2023

Eighteenth-century design for a ceiling

Ferdinando Galli Bibiena, A Grand Illusionistic Ceiling, 1720/1740, pen and brown ink with gray and brown washes over graphite on laid paper
(Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1994.73.1)

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From the NGA:

Looking Up: Studies for Ceilings, 1550–1800
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 29 January — 9 July 2023

Curated by Jonathan Bober

In modern architecture and contemporary interior design, ceilings have lost much of their original, complex meaning, becoming neutral fields or featuring generic decoration. However, in the European tradition that spanned nearly four centuries, ceilings were where the most ambitious, compelling, and meaningful painted compositions appeared.

Drawing of a coffered dome with Apollo and Phaeton

Felice Giani, A Coffered Dome with Apollo and Phaeton, ca. 1787, pen and brown ink with gray, blue, and pink washes over black chalk on wove paper (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1991.81.1).

Looking Up: Studies for Ceilings, 1550–1800 presents some 30 examples of the evolution of ceiling decoration. These works move from architectural frameworks housing conventional paintings to the illusion of a single, soaring space teeming with figures and dynamic movement during the baroque, and then on to the geometric organization and idealized form associated with neoclassism. Some of the drawings are vibrant preliminary studies; others are large-scale models that give a sense of the experience of the intended final composition. Studies of single motifs and individual figures reveal how these grand projects enticed viewers to pause and look up.

The exhibition is curated by Jonathan Bober, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Art.

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