- Jacopo Tintoretto 1519-1594 (Masters of Italian Art)
- Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity, Second Expanded EditionOur PickBy Tom Nichols
Important Art by Jacopo Tintoretto
Jacopo Tintoretto painted this expressive self-portrait as he reached 30 years old. His dark curly hair, mustache, and beard, along with his black jacket nearly blend into blue-black background while his face appears as if glowing in light against the darkness. The starkness of the composition, quite unlike his densely populated narrative paintings, was unprecedented, as the artist provides no details to indicate a place, context, or even his profession as an artist. Tintoretto's gaze is truly captivating, with his head turned over his right shoulder he stares directly out providing an uncompromisingly direct confrontation with the viewer.
This groundbreaking self-portrait was the opening artwork featured at the exhibition, "Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice," at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the artist's birth. The visibly pronounced brushstrokes, appearing as natural highlights on the artist's face from afar, seem as nearly impasto patches of paint on the surface of the composition as one approaches the work. This key feature of Tintoretto's style, found even in his earliest works, helped to set him apart from the more finished brushwork styles of his Venetian contemporaries such as Titian and Veronese, and would influence the work of his younger contemporaries and subsequent generations of artists. According to Echols and Ilchman, co-curators of the National Gallery's exhibition, "in the context of a self-portrait, the noticeable brush marks, revealing the process by which the painting was created, provide a second self-image of the artist: in addition to showing his physical appearance, the image embodies his distinctive pictorial technique and artistic personality. This may be the first autonomous self-portrait in European art to leave the touch of the artist so evident, functioning almost as a signature. The line that extends to the freely painted self-portraits of Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne starts here."
A crowd of figures stand gathered around a fallen nude male, seeming to express various states of shock and confusion. A single figure in a pale, green robe and white turban turns away, holding a broken hammer up for the benefit of a startled leader who leans forward, nearly standing, from of his elevated, seated position. An angelic figure hovers over the event. The overall composition of Tintoretto's religious painting, The Miracle of the Slave, although set within an opulent Roman courtyard, is intense with action. This miraculous event depicts the moment a slave, the nude figure, is about to be punished for praying to relics of Saint Mark which his master had forbidden. Three times the executioner attempted to levy the punishment, and each time the tools have broken before the slave could be harmed. This is the work of Saint Mark who, in dramatic fashion, descends from heaven in a red robe and billowing orange cape to rescue the slave and spare him the suffering associated with this painful death. This miracle also converts the slave's master to embrace the Christian faith.
The great influence that Michelangelo had on Tintoretto's artistic style is visible in this work; the robust, muscular figures staged in a variety of complex positions are reminiscent of the Renaissance master. Specifically, art historian Tom Nichols describes a connection between the "...reclining nudes which frequent the foregrounds of important paintings from the late 1540s..." including this work, and Michelangelo's Dusk (1526-34) and Dawn (1526-34). Scholars doubt whether Tintoretto saw the masterworks in person, but instead made studies based on sculptural maquettes or other works based on the originals by Michelangelo.
Despite some of the initial criticism Tintoretto received for the speed at which he worked, made obvious from the loose and gestural brushwork, this painting had a profound impact on Tintoretto's career. A commission for the Confraternity of Scuola Grande di San Marco brought the artist wide attention, after which he began receiving many commissions. Echols and Ilchman explain that, "according to Tintoretto's biographers, some members of the confraternity argued against accepting it, enraging the artist, who took it back to his studio. But eventually, the naysayers were discomfited, Tintoretto and his proponents won the day, and the painting was installed to great acclaim." The acceptance of this work was an essential step towards broadening the stylistic range of the Venetian School. In addition to the more traditional approaches of Titian, here Tintoretto provided a highly dramatic presentation of a religious subject which helped to lay the foundation for the future development of Baroque art.
Tintoretto's large-scale painting of The Crucifixion features the scene of Christ's death in a dramatic panorama, standing 17-feet tall and just over 40-feet-wide. Amid the tumult of characters, the artist has crafted a complex composition which evokes the preceding events of the Passion, while also suggesting what is yet to occur. The muscular body of Christ hangs heavy on the cross overlooking the mourners who gather at its base, almost crumpled in form and distraught in their grief as they try to comfort each other. Here Tintoretto follows traditional iconography, depicting the agony of the three Marys, St. John the Evangelist, and the two men who will soon lower the body of Christ from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The Virgin appears to have fainted, her body swoons into a graceful curve with one arm outstretched, also anticipating the pending deposition scene by mimicking the form Christ's body will soon take. The artist departs from typical renderings of the scene, however, by showing the two thieves in the process of crucifixion, instead of flanking the body of Christ. This reminds the viewer of the brutality endured by Christ only moments before. On Christ's right, the thief who by tradition repents, is shown looking at his savior while his cross is raised, symbolically suggesting his ascent to Heaven. Conversely, on Christ's left, the man who did not accept Christ, looks away while the executioners begin to nail his body to the cross. Surrounding the main events of this biblical scene, soldiers and other well-dressed figures on horses provide witness to the event, as would the elite members of the confraternity allowed admittance into the hall to view the actual masterpiece.
Created specifically for the boardroom of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, it is one of the earliest works Tintoretto painted for the confraternity, which would ultimately number approximately 50 paintings completed over the course of more than two decades. While the Crucifixion was a popular subject for artists throughout this period of Western history, Tintoretto distinguishes himself here by presenting one of the most theatrical and densely populated renderings of this subject. Reminiscent of Michelangelo's iconic fresco depicting The Last Judgment on the altar wall within the Sistine Chapel, Tintoretto's "Crucifixion" reveals the influence of the Renaissance master in both composition and approach to the human form. As with his predecessor, Tintoretto's figures are full of movement offering a virtuoso display of technique and foreshortening. The tumultuous action of the earthbound figures, which is characteristic of Tintoretto's style, provides a dramatically sharp contrast to the still figure of Christ, depicted in Majesty surrounded with a glowing halo, as he approaches death. For the devout artist, this was a divine moment which represented his own salvation.