Recovering Tintoretto, Painter of the Venetian Late Renaissance

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on June 4, 2019
Tintoretto, Self-Portrait, c. 1546-48, Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The quincentennial of the birth of Venetian artist Jacopo Robusti, known as Il Tintoretto (1518/19-1594), is being marked by the first retrospective exhibition of this later sixteenth century artist in the United States.  On view at National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, it was organized in collaboration with the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  This very fact implies an enormous effort to recover the work of this important artist.  For many decades, after a major exhibit of Tintoretto’s paintings in Venice in 1937, it was considered effectively impossible to stage an exhibit of this magnitude anywhere outside of Venice.  This is in part because of the unusually large size of many of Tintoretto’s works, and the many logistical problems of dismantling them from their in situ locations and safely transporting them.  The other problem is the fact that although Tintoretto was vastly successful in his own time—almost too successful, and hugely ambitious—he remains relatively unknown to the general public, his name far less familiar than other sixteenth century artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian.   The reasons for this are many, and not least among them are the many myths that stubbornly follow the artist’s reputation that portray him as an outsider, a rebel, a difficult and bizarre personality, and perhaps most problematically: a Mannerist.

The term, like so many other terms like it used in art history textbooks to conveniently divide stylistic periods, is misleading.  While it does depend on an Italian word that was used by sixteenth century writers on art, its English translation has a distinctly negative sound.  When we speak of something being “mannered” we usually mean that it is artificial and distasteful.  This, of course, is nearly the opposite of what a writer like Giorgio Vasari or Ludovico Dolce meant when they used the word maniera.  The direct translation of this word into English is style and, as John Shearman pointed out many years ago, the word was used to denote a particular artist’s style, as well as a desirable quality of works of art and architecture, much in the way we speak of something or someone “having style”.  The concept was derived from French courtly literature about human deportment, signifying “effortless accomplishment and sophistication.  It was inimical to revealed passion, evident effort and rude naïveté;” qualities, it might be added, that have been seen in Tintoretto’s work. [1]   Yet, no contemporary writers spoke of “Mannerism,” or Maniera as a movement, or even as a characteristic style of the sixteenth century in Italy or anywhere else.  The word was used negatively by Vasari to apply to various artists he wrote about from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, often in a way that it meant what we would call stylization: that is a reduction of nature to repeated and often abstracted forms, the imposition of style over observation.  The historical reality is that artists and critics saw the styles that were practiced in the various regions of Italy in the mid to late sixteenth century as an evolution from what we call the “High Renaissance;” not a revolution.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1540-45, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Photo: OA)


Tintoretto, Portrait of a Young Man with a Blue Sleeve, c. 1548. Private Collection.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Tintoretto’s painting has suffered from these and other problems.   As he was born in 1518 or 19, his autonomous career began in the early 1540s.  This means that he is categorized with other mid-sixteenth century artists covered in the textbooks, despite the fact that his work is quite different from Florentine contemporaries such as Bronzino.  An excellent example of this would be a comparison of a painting in the current exhibition, Portrait of a Young Man with a Blue Sleeve, painted c. 1548, to the almost contemporary Portrait of a Young Man by Bronzino (c. 1540) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The polished smoothness of Bronzino’s painted surface, the high degree of tension in the surroundings of the subject, and the sharpness of his drawing could not be more distinct from the brushy and relatively more relaxed image in Tintoretto’s portrait.  Indeed, his fast alla prima or direct brushwork in this relatively early portrait clearly identifies him with the Venetian approach to painting with its emphasis on color over drawing; that is, colore vs. the disegno of the central Italians.

Yet, as the curators of this exhibit, Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, go to some lengths to show, Tintoretto was something of a misfit.  Not in his native Venice, but in the context of what has come to be understood as the great debate that began in the sixteenth century concerning the virtues of one painting approach over the other, and which continued to be relevant for centuries afterward.  Echols and Ilchman point out that on his studio wall Tintoretto wrote out his aim with painting: “the disegno of Michelangelo and the colorito of Titian.”  This synthesis is indeed evident in his work, beginning with the remarkable pictures of the 1540s when, unlike Titian who drew directly with the brush on his canvasses, Tintoretto made numerous drawing studies, some of which are included in this exhibition of over 50 paintings.  And, it may be added that although he is most definitely a Venetian artist, he was an elected member of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, thus himself straddling the categories.

Tintoretto, Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan, c. 1545-46, Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich.  Photo: Wiki Commons.

Another interesting comparison in this vein would be between Tintoretto’s Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (c. 1545-6) in this exhibit, with Bronzino’s absolutely contemporary Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly in the National Gallery, London.  Here, once again, Bronzino’s icy rendering of Venus being kissed by her son, surrounded by recondite allegorical figures could not be farther from Tintoretto’s handling of the mythological subject.  As the museum label points out, Tintoretto has changed the erotic character of the subject into a “domestic farce,” with Mars hiding under the couch piled with Venus’ clothes trying to hush the barking dog, and Venus looking like she’s trying to figure out what to say about that.  Venus’ smooth and light body contrasts to the darker, heavily muscled Vulcan; a kind of figure developed by Tintoretto from his study of Michelangelo’s drawings and sculpture.  Close examination of the surface reveals Tintoretto’s concern with contour, using a light brown wash to outline the figures, setting them off from their environment.

Bronzino, Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly, c. 1545, National Gallery, London. Photo: NG Creative Commons.

There is one aspect of Tintoretto’s art revealed in this exhibition that ties him into what might be established as an international trend in later sixteenth century painting and decoration: the horror vacui, filling up every inch of a canvas with figures and multiplying them into large compositions.   We know that the artist painted large works in part to outdo his rivals in Venice—most especially Titian, but also Veronese and other lesser lights.  But his approach to certain subjects in the vast compositions that he developed for his paintings in the scuole or confraternities, are, as was noted by Jean Paul Sartre and repeated by Echols and Ilchman,[2] nothing less than cinematic.  These works are “super paintings” capable of dominating spaces not unlike a vast screen would in a movie theatre. They are too large to be seen all at once, forcing the viewer’s eyes to wander around looking for a place to land, and thus creating a sense of movement that the modern viewer could relate to the experience of cinema.

Tintoretto, Paradiso (modello), c. 1583, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. ©Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

This is nowhere more evident than in Tintoretto’s enormous painting (actually considered the largest painting on canvas anywhere) of Paradise (1588-92) that he, and his son Domenico, carried out for the Sala del Maggior Consilio in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, the modello or oil sketch for which (c. 1583) has been borrowed for this exhibition.  While there were evident problems with installing this work into the gallery because of its size (considerably smaller than the actual painting) and its nearness to the lights in the ceiling which make it difficult to see, moving back from it will allow the viewer some of the visual experience referred to above.  Literally teeming with figures that seem to float on waves of clouds somehow above the stars, the painting is visually overwhelming.  This effect is distinctive to Tintoretto who, in doing this, anticipates the way that many much later works (think, for example, Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa) take up the viewer’s entire visual field, pulling him inexorably into the space of the painting.

Tintoretto, The Wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1578.  Palazzo Ducale, Venice.  Photo Archive-Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.  Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


Tintoretto, The Origins of the Milky Way, c. 1576-78, The National Gallery, London.  © The National Gallery, London.  Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Standing out among the works included in this exhibit for their dynamic figural compositions and sumptuous color are two mythological paintings that are among the artist’s best known works: the Origin of the Milky Way (1577-79) and The Wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne (1578). Both include the bright blue color derived from lapis lazuli that draws the eye and holds it on the painting.  In both we see Tintoretto’s singular posing of figures in ways that convey the emotion of the scene.  They splay outward, they fly downward, and they energize the pictorial space with their apparent movement in it.  That feeling of movement is also wonderfully evident in The Creation of the Animals (1550-53) in which God’s flying figure surrounded by glowing light moves from right to left, the birds and fish making lines leading to the left before him.

Tintoretto, The Creation of the Animals, c. 1550-53, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The main exhibition will remain on view at the National Gallery through July 7, 2019 in the West Building, Main Floor.  The two collateral exhibitions of drawings and prints from the period will only be on view through June 9th.   Together these exhibitions are revelatory about the character and historical place of Tintoretto’s art, and about our tendencies to categorize, often to the obfuscation of a fuller understanding.

Tintoretto, Artist of Renaissance Venice, National Gallery of Art, West Building, through July 7, 2019.  For more information, see

[1] John Shearman, Mannerism, Penguin Books, New York, 1979, pp. 17-18.

[2] Echols and Ilchman, “Almost a Prophet,” in Tintoretto, Artist of Renaissance Venice, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 2018,  p. 22.

Cover rotating image: Tintoretto, The Forge of Vulcan, 1578, Palazzo Ducale, Venice.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery.