Apprenticed to Sebastiano Ricci, but much influenced by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Francesco Fontebasso became one of the leading artists of 18th century Venice, much in demand as a painter of frescoes and history pictures. In his early career, he spent brief periods in both Bologna and Rome before returning to his native Venice. He probably first came into contact with Tiepolo’s work about 1730 when he saw the frescoes at the Palazzo Patriarcale in Udine, an encounter that would steer Fontebasso’s work in a decisive new direction. The impact was evident in his first major commission in Venice, from the Manin family, for I Gesuiti, executed in 1734, by which point his reputation had already grown to the point where he was able to open a school. Commissions flooded in from members of the Venetian aristocracy in the subsequent decades, and in 1761 he was invited to St. Petersburg at the invitation of Empress Catherine II: he would remain there for nearly two years, working on projects for the Winter Palace and other Imperial palaces. Appointed as Professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, he then returned to Venice at the end of his career, becoming principe of the Accademia Veneziana in 1768.
This picture is typical of Fontebasso’s mature style, with its free brushwork, warm and vibrant tonalities, and a composition full of character. It is an enchanting staging of an Old Testament encounter, a subject that Fontebasso treated on at least three occasions. In the foreground of a landscape that resembles a stage setting, an alluring repoussoir figure is cast in shadow, whilst the main action unfolds in full sunlight: the young Rebecca, dressed as an operatic shepherdess in a silk dress, recoils modestly at the proposal of Eliezer, dressed in fanciful Oriental costume. Four young ladies are fetching water, striking the graceful pose of dancers as they surround the well, harmoniously and carefully arranged by the artist, while beyond, a picturesque cityscape is bathed in morning mist.