Follow the history of Italian painting and you see saints, the holy family, mythical heroes and heroines, attendant angels, putti, ladies in waiting and men at arms hustled along by tides of fashion. Dress changes, deportment is adjusted, and the action is taken to brighter or to shadier stages. One journey is from decorous order, on through majestic assurance, to fluttering brilliance. The work of Giambattista Tiepolo marks a late stage on that route. A small, very enjoyable exhibition of his oil sketches (the greater part from the Courtauld’s own collection) and drawings (many from the V&A) can be seen at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 29 May.

Space, even after the geometrical basis of perspective is mastered, comes in flavours which mirror changes of tone and feeling. When the arena established by the recession of marble paving, and arcades and walls at right angles to the picture plane becomes crowded with figures that overlap, twist and bend, a solemn, static drama gives way to something more theatrical but which lacks the gravity of Piero della Francesca or early Raphael. Perspective is both more sophisticated and more marginal. As time passes, the problem of the representation of architecture is liable to be given over to a specialist. Fully developed, this skill disciplines the viewer as much as the maker. Although the representation of painted mouldings and pilasters on any number of frescoed walls can fool you about what is flat and what is in the round, the illusion usually breaks down when greater depth is implied. The deeper the perspective, the more sensitive the illusion is to where you stand. The columns linked by arches which tower above you in Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling painting in the Church of San Ignazio in Rome – perhaps the most famous example of architectural illusionism – only do so convincingly when you are within the marble circle on the floor of the nave which marks the station point.

When, as is often the case with Tiepolo, the painted architectural frame and the scene it surrounds work in different registers – when the former challenges the eye and the latter offers a fantasy which engages the imagination – a trade-off has to take place. The surround has the solid look of real architecture while the odd glimpse of a capital or cornice in the picture it encloses suggests stage scenery – and thus implies that what is shown is a staged reconstruction, not the event itself. The illusionistic architectural surrounds provided by Colonna for Tiepolo’s scenes from the life of Cleopatra in the Palazzo Labia in Venice only emphasise how little the perspective of pavements and pilasters has to do with the portrayal of depth in many of Tiepolo’s most likeable pictures. The greatest of them, like a number of the sketches in the exhibition, deal in infinities of blue sky and towering mountains of sun-blushed cloud. When the solidity and weight which a settled perspective can bring to painting is abandoned, when the place of the viewer in relation to the scene is not asserted so insistently, painters can take advantage of the way ambiguous horizon lines and vanishing points allow the eye’s interpretation of a view to change as it moves about in front of it or below it. In Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994), Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxendall have described the way this works with Tiepolo’s Four Continents – the ceiling of the staircase in the Würzburg Residenz – where ambiguities that defy geometrical analysis seem to exploit the changes in the architectural environment as the viewer moves through it.

That scheme, his greatest work, requires that you look up. It was conjugations of figures gathered, for example, round the edges of a dome, or tumbling about in bright light of the kind air travel has shown us does exist above earthly murk, that gave Tiepolo’s huge talent for the invention of poses and groups freest reign. In some ways a ceiling is an ungrateful surface – a crick in the neck seems a poor way to welcome an audience. But only when you look up can floating bodies pictured from below take on the view-through-a window naturalness that belongs to framed pictures hanging on walls.

If, by the middle decades of the 18th century when Tiepolo was at work, the hard currency of calculation could easily be exchanged for the coin of good-enough perspective, good-enough anatomy could deal pretty well with the look of the body. Foreshortened views of arms, hands, legs and heads had become so much part of the ordinary artistic vocabulary that Tiepolo could pluck figures and arrange them as though they were meadow flowers. There are passages where you are not quite certain how limbs and body join up under the swags of blue, gold, peach or red drapery, and others where you wonder just what protuberance a highlight refers to, but these ‘errors’, like a juggler’s near-misses, tend to emphasise rather than qualify skill. In Tiepolo’s case, preparatory studies, like the oil sketches and drawings shown here, are not part of a laborious planning process, but trial performances, and go some way towards explaining the freshness which marks the greatest of his large-scale works. You get the strong impression that all his work grew in much the same way on paper, wall or canvas. There are, for example, the pen and wash drawings in which figures look to have begun as random marks – abbreviated pencil or chalk scribbles – which were gathered into representations with a minimal number of pen lines and areas of wash delineating limbs, heads and drapery. In this, Tiepolo exemplifies that way of finding the seeds for graphic invention in random stains or the shapes of clouds. On the other hand, this sort of spontaneous image-generation only works if you have a stock of details – hands, feet, heads, folds in drapery, rocks, vegetation – waiting to be fitted together in a new configuration. That Tiepolo had such a stock is clear. His cast of characters (a bearded man, a pretty, round-faced woman, a hag, a young hero, a man at arms), of trees (one palm, one fir) and animals (among them a particularly supercilious camel) is quite small.

His was not a way of picture-making that allowed the development of individual character or deep emotion. His saints and martyrs tend to grate on modern sensibilities and taste was shifting against his religious style even in his own lifetime; the altarpieces painted for the Church of San Pascual Baylón in Aranjuez, late in the 1760s, when he was in his seventies, were replaced by pictures of the same subjects by Mengs and others very soon after they were installed. The five extant oil sketches for this commission are in the exhibition; to a modern eye the thinness of the religious feeling is to a large extent made up for by the quality of the graphic performance. The pleasure you get looking at this work comes from the confidence, the delicacy of touch and the vigour of conception. These are what allow a remarkable variety of ways of making pictures to project a common visual personality. There is a painting of Apollo and Phaethon from Barnard Castle in which little patches of bare canvas show through. No one is sure if this dates from before or after his ceiling painting of the same subject, or even whether it is a study or a picture in its own right, but it fits with the notion all his work gives that no one ever needed to say to him: ‘Stop now, old man. Keep it fresh.’

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