Progression of Art
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."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Miracle of the Slave
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Gallerie Dell'Accademia, Venice
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Sala dell'Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
The Origin of the Milky Way
One of four paintings based on the myth of Hercules, Tintoretto's The Origin of the Milky Way depicts the god Jupiter bringing his son, born of a mortal woman, to nurse from the breast of his wife, the goddess Juno. In a composition which anticipates the drama of Baroque painting, the artist creates a scene of flustered activity depicting the moment Juno awakens to discover Jupiter's deceit. According to myth, the infant Heracles would obtain immortality through breastfeeding from the goddess. However, as she awakes, Juno draws away in anger causing her milk to spray across the sky, thus forming the Milky Way indicated by an array of stars. From her other breast, milk falls toward Earth resulting in the creation of beautiful lilies, believed to be part of the original composition (later trimmed down). Below the immortal couple, numerous cupids with bows drawn, symbolize the marital discord and its universal consequences.
The work provides visible proof of Tintoretto's skill as both a draughtsman and colorist. The foreshortening of Jupiter is reminiscent of Giotto's groundbreaking frescos in the Arena Chapel, the muscular Juno the influence of Michelangelo, but the rhythmic arrangement of figures is uniquely Tintoretto. Nichols describes how the expert use of color in both the figures and attire relates to Tintoretto's childhood exposure to pigments in his father's workshop as a cloth dyer. He writes, "immediately noticeable are the range and quality of the pigments used: the composition is built up from a carefully variegated palette which moves from intense blue to grey in the sky, and from white and gold through to orange, pink and scarlet in the draperies."
While best remembered for his religious paintings, The Origin of the Milky Way is one of many mythological paintings Tintoretto created throughout his long career. This particular series of paintings, commissioned from Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, is an important indication of the progressive artist's popularity beyond Italy. Interestingly, some mystery surrounds the original impetus for this painting. Some scholars believe it was first painted as a commission for the "grand guardian" of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, Tommaso Rangone, who had commissioned other notable works from the artist, including Finding the Body of Saint Mark. After Rangone's death, the artist reconfigured this painting for the Emperor.
Oil on canvas - Collection of National Gallery, London
Moses Striking the Rock
In this visualization of the Old Testament story, Tintoretto portrays a scene from the book of Numbers 20:11 which states, "then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank." The artist depicts the precise moment of action when Moses, dressed in billowing red robes, strikes the rock for a second time producing a waterfall spilling out in long flowing arcs. In the foreground of the composition a throng of people rushes towards the water, attempting to fill their vessels and bowls. Watching over the scene in the upper right corner of the composition is a dramatically foreshortened depiction of God. Separating the heavenly realm from this miracle is a prophetic vision; the Israelites are under attack in an act foreshadowing the trials that God's people will face.
Characteristic of Tintoretto's mature style, here as in so many of his paintings, the artist renders the story in the moment of highest drama. The powerful tenebrism, or contrast between light and dark, symbolically contrasts the light from heaven against the earthly figures in darkness below, as well as serving to illuminate Moses who stands nearly central in the composition. The feeling of movement is accented by Tintoretto's sketch-like quality, for which he remains best known, and the depiction of strong muscular bodies contorted in a variety of positions to increase the overall theatrical effect of the scene.
This painting is one of a series of three ceiling works featuring stories from the Old Testament completed for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco where he, once again, demonstrated his ability to push beyond tradition. According to Echols and Ilchman, unlike what had done in prior ceiling paintings, Tintoretto's, "...treatment of space was free and fluid rather than adhering to a unified, strictly rational perspective; he structures scenes based on relationships among the figures." His skill in these paintings was so well received that he went on to create the works for the remaining spaces within the Sala Superiore for the Confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco making this project collectively his greatest commission.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Sala Superiore, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
In Tintoretto's epic painting Paradiso (or Paradise), Christ and his mother Mary are depicted in a circle of golden light at the top center of the canvas. They look down upon concentric rings of clouds occupied by saints, angels, and bodies resurrected from their graves who look up towards heaven. An angel approaches Mary, just to her right, extending to her a stem bearing white lilies. Meanwhile, to the left of Christ, an angel is bringing a set of scales to the Christian savior. Tintoretto has woven in the traditional iconography of the Annunciation scene, where the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will carry the child of God, together with the Last Judgment, implied by the artist with the symbol of the scales. The clouds wrap around the central figures, almost likes ripples in a pond, suggesting the continued reverberations of the church's teachings - especially significant during the time of the Counter Reformation.
One of the greatest works of Tintoretto's career, and certainly one of the largest at 23 feet high and 72 feet long, he won the commission in a competition to redecorate the Doge's Palace in Venice after it had been severely damaged in a fire. Even after the death of Titian, the road to this commission was not without challengers; Tintoretto lost it to his younger rivals, first Paolo Veronese and Francesco Bassano who were to complete the colossal painting as a team. Following Veronese's death in 1588, Tintoretto alone gained the commission. The large-scale of the masterwork, however, required an intense physicality of the labor. So, although the artist completed a preparatory large-scale version of the composition, he was unable to complete the final version at full scale. As Echols and Ilchman, explain, "[Tintoretto] lacked the strength to climb up and down the scaffolding and put the final touches on his canvas. So he passed that task on to [his son] Domenico."
Seen from afar, Paradiso is nearly an abstract vision composed of rhythmic patterns of light and color. The work represents the culmination of the artist's years of attention to and mastery of sharp contrasts between light and dark in the intensely rendered figures. According to art historian Giorgio Tagliaferro, the painting is, "...enlivened by color and lighting, which highlight the bodies with powerful chiaroscuro effects ... Jacopo employed a varied repertoire of energetic poses, elaborated over the years in figure studies." The dramatic, almost theatrical quality of Tintoretto's scene would lay the foundation for Baroque art.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Palazzo Ducale, Venice
The Last Supper
Painted for the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, this late version of the Last Supper is perhaps the most unusual and dramatic staging of a scene often depicted by the artist. Tintoretto's painting is anything but symmetrical as even the table itself is set at a sharp angel receding into the dark background of the picture plane. This effectively divides the canvas into two scenes, contrasting the spirituality of the scene on one side of the table with the secular world on the other. In a central position, Jesus Christ stands surrounded by his disciples, all on the far side of the table. Eleven disciples and two women stand on the same side of the table as Christ, one of the women wears blue, the other is in red, symbolic colors associated with The Madonna and Mary Magdalene, respectively. Also behind Christ on the left side of the canvas, the hanging lamp casts out an illusionary glow, a golden circle of light casting rays across the scene accented with trails of smoke that morph into sketchy, translucent-like angels who bear witness to the event. Across the table, and in one way that Tintoretto follows tradition, is Judas, the betrayer, who sits among the servants and staff of the earthly realm, who appear to be serving the Last Supper to the heavenly gathering.
This is an important late painting by Tintoretto featuring a subject he created often throughout his career. This is, arguably one of the most interesting examples in which he depicted a religious subject, popular among patrons and artists, and rendered it in a way that is uniquely his own. Traditionally the iconic subject of Christ's last meal with his disciples depicts the event in a formal hierarchy, with Christ as the focal point sitting among his followers in the center of the canvas, and they are the sole occupants of the scene. Here, Tintoretto offers an almost shockingly different interpretation. Christ stands far back in the compositional space created by the artist, behind the mass of secondary servant figures who crowd the chaotic scene. Most notably Christ does not represent the vanishing point, an approach most famously employed by Leonardo da Vinci. While steeped in Renaissance techniques, works such as this one result in Tintoretto's association by later scholars with the 16th-century tradition of Italian Mannerism. The extremely dark composition, accented with sharp contrasts of bright light to highlight Christ and the celestial angelic figures above, not only sets him apart from the highly saturated use of color usually associated with the School of Venice, but foreshadows the dramatic use of tenebrism employed by Caravaggio and his followers. The strategy of extreme dark and light, paired with a strong diagonal compositional structure, will also become the trademark of Romantic painters, ranging from Theodore Gericault to Francisco de Goya.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice