Titian’s painting The Assumption of the Virgin, created between 1516 and 1518, which hangs over the main altar of the Frari in Venice, is a composition of supreme simplicity. In the lower part of the painting stands the crowd, utterly surprised at what is transpiring, some of them with arms outstretched. They are wearing beautiful robes, as is the Virgin, who, above them, is on her way from earth to heaven. Her arms are stretched out too. She is surrounded by clouds and angels. Above her waiting is God himself.
The painting is a single image, even though it is set on three levels, even though there are crowds of disciples and many angels, even though the pale blue light of the earthly sky is set against the glowing light above, the light of heaven. It is startlingly disciplined and direct. The figures below are merely there to allow us to see the Virgin and the miracle more vividly. The Virgin’s robes and her pose as she ascends, or is assumed body and soul toward eternity, catch our attention and hold it. The image moves upward and so does the eye. This is a great drama, the apotheosis of Marian worship. The painting, in all its grandeur, its vertical sweep, does not merely reflect one of the exalted moments in the life of Mary, but, confidently, bravely, seems to enact its glory.
Less than ten minutes’ walk away is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. In an upstairs room in this secular building is Tintoretto’s astonishing painting of the Crucifixion, created in 1565. It is seventeen feet high and forty feet wide, taking up a full wall of the somberly lit room. If we compare it with Titian’s Assumption, it makes clear Tintoretto’s concern with worldliness and untidiness against Titian’s fascination with the power of finish. Tintoretto is as interested in earth as he is in heaven, in light from the sky as much as light from a halo. This big, bustling horizontal painting pulls the eye back and forth. It can hardly be called religious since its interest is in the ordinary beside the saintly, in what the Crucifixion might have felt like at the time rather than what it came to mean in the pages of the New Testament.
Tintoretto does not attempt to capture the Crucifixion as a single scene in all its pathos and possibility, but rather as part of a busy day, as the center of a great deal of activity, the humans like ants going about their business. This painting, which John Ruskin described as “beyond all analysis, and above all praise,” establishes pattern only by abandoning easy symmetries and replacing them with teeming life, working with the tension between our alertness to the central scene—the figure on the cross—and the urge, which the painting dramatizes, to look away from it.
What the first full-scale retrospective in North America of Tintoretto’s work, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, shows clearly is that this interest in panorama and the sweeping gesture was merely one of the painter’s moods. Tintoretto, if he wished, could create a disciplined image. And when he narrowed his scenes down to a drama between two people, or to a drama within a single face, he could focus his energy and feeling to create a moment of pure excitement that matched work that might appear, on first viewing, more ambitious and breathtaking.
The plenitude of Tintoretto’s style in paintings such as The Crucifixion at San Rocco could intensify and become sharper, more dramatic. Although it is tempting to put him and Titian, who was thirty years his senior and died when Tintoretto was fifty-seven, in opposition to each other, this would be too simple, as the exhibition makes abundantly clear. Nonetheless, the differences between the two painters, personal as well as artistic, became part of the accepted narrative from early on.
In Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice (2009), Frederick Ilchman writes:
According to early sources, Tintoretto was briefly apprenticed to Titian, but did not remain long in his studio, either driven out by the jealous older artist—as recounted by the Venetian biographer Carlo Ridolfi and the seventeenth-century critic Marco Boschini—or possibly leaving of his own accord when he realized what a poor mentor Titian could be to his pupils. Whatever the cause, a strong personal antipathy seems to have developed between the two painters, and numerous commissions or pledges appear to be attempts by one to outdo or block the other.
Titian, for example, had in 1553 lobbied to fill the space in San Rocco that would be, twelve years later, the site of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion. Sheila Hale, in her biography of Titian, suggests that the older painter may have gotten rid of the younger one less from jealousy and more from sheer irritation: “The young man was everything Titian was not: impulsive, uncouth, tactless, inarticulate, badly dressed, lacking in respect for his elders and betters, not especially interested in money or honors.”
The rivalry between them was somewhat lopsided. Tintoretto, Hale writes,
worked exclusively for Venetian patrons and posed no threat to Titian’s international prestige…. Much, perhaps too much, has been made of the rivalrous relationships of the three greatest Venetian painters of the second half of the sixteenth century [Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, who was ten years younger than Tintoretto]. But it is true that three geniuses working in the same small city at the same time—dining in the same taverns, walking the same streets, listening to the same gossip—could hardly have failed to keep a jealous eye on one another’s work.
The show at the National Gallery is framed by two self-portraits, one as you enter of the artist as a scruffy young man, the other as you leave of the artist in old age, his face filled with melancholy and weariness. Both paintings are starkly made, with a dark background. In the first one, the face is turning toward the spectator; the expression is deliberate, driven, forceful, intense; the character is not at ease with himself. By the time of the second self-portrait, which captures the full face, the old painter is in possession of some dark knowledge that has exhausted him and also offered him a kind of emotional equanimity. The rheumy gaze goes outward from a self that is old and stoic and resigned.
Henry James wrote beautifully about this second portrait:
The old man looks out of the canvas from beneath a brow as sad as a sunless twilight…the face of a man who felt that he had given the world more than the world was likely to repay…. On one side the power, the passion, the illusion of his art; on the other the mortal fatigue of his spirit.
James wrote that the painter’s life was “one of the most intellectually passionate ever led.”
The jury remains out on Tintoretto as a portrait painter. Hale, for example, describes him as “an uneven portraitist” and writes that his portrait of Ottavio Strada is “such an eccentric mess that it deserves a place at the top of the list of the silliest paintings of the Italian Renaissance,” even suggesting that it might really have been painted by his thirteen-year-old daughter Marietta.
In an essay in the exhibition catalog, Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman write, “Modern critics…have discounted [Tintoretto] as a portraitist…. At best, he has been presented as a competent, sometimes even admirable portraitist, but not an exceptional or distinctive one.” They put his poor reputation down to the large number of mediocre portraits that his studio in Venice produced, and also to the idea that the best portraits painted by him alone “do not conform to conventional views of the artist.” These paintings are, they say, unlike the work Tintoretto is famous for, “austere, understated, stripped of anything that would interfere with our direct engagement with the subject.”
The ten portraits in the largest room in the National Gallery serve to illustrate this point. Two of them are from private collections; others come from places such as Dresden, Vienna, Madrid, and Berlin. If they had remained in Venice all along, or were normally hung together, they would have better informed our view of Tintoretto as a portrait painter.
In these pictures, he was not concerned with beauty, but rather with experience, with the rich or turbulent inner life as seen in the weathered face. None of his subjects appears to be placid or at ease. No expression is fully stable or single. What he is capturing is a life in motion, with much unfinished business, and a sense also of appetite, power, ambition, desire, even disappointment.
Portrait of a Man with a White Beard (1555) depicts the face of a middle-aged man with an element of pride and haughtiness, but also of fear and unease, and perhaps even a suggestion of tenderness. The background is dark. Only the face and the left hand are lit. The image is complete and perfect, all the more so because the power of the gaze is ambiguous, incomplete, open to various readings.*
While the white-bearded man’s clothes almost melt into the dark tones of the background, Portrait of a Young Man with a Blue Sleeve (1548) allows Tintoretto to paint the wrinkled textures and folds of the sleeve and the pillar behind the man with some swirling and busy gestures. But the face is all gravity, all smoothness and finish, the flesh tones perfectly lit, set off by the shadow on one side of the face. The young man is not merely sad; he is serious, self-enclosed.
Eyes in direct communication with the viewer appear also in Portrait of a Man with a Red Beard (1547) and in Man with a Golden Chain (1560). There is no hint here that these subjects sat for a long time for an official portrait; rather they seem caught with great deliberation in paint while on their way elsewhere, held for a moment as they sensed they were being watched and could watch directly in return. What Tintoretto was seeking in these paintings was neither drama nor stillness, but something in between, a picture of a lived-in face, a figure made restless by competing emotions, a figure busy in the middle of things, powerful but unsatisfied, a face in flux, a face fully alone.
Some of the group compositions included in the show, unlike these fiercely disciplined and intense portraits, look as though they were painted in sections over time and then stitched together hastily to fulfill some obligation. In Doge Alvise Mocenigo and Family Before the Virgin and Child (1575), the figures appear to each come from a different part of town. All of them seem uncomfortable, as though they would be happier in some other picture. The two angels verge on the unangelic. The catalog points out that recent technical examinations of this painting make clear that “four of the portraits…were painted on canvas with a different weave from the rest of the work and sewn into the larger composition where blank areas had been left to receive them.”
Mocenigo makes an appearance in some other paintings in the show, including a portrait in which he seems complex and combative. Although this was painted just a few years after the group portrait, he comes across in it as much older and much more alive. It is perhaps the mixture of power with frailty, absent in the larger painting, that makes the single portrait work so well.
In the exhibition there are other pieces that speak to one another or throw light on the nature of Tintoretto’s talent. Most surprising is Reclining Male Nude (circa 1553), a drawing in chalk on blue-gray paper from the Louvre. It is of a figure full of coiled, tangled energy lying with his left arm outstretched and his right forearm beneath his body. What we notice is the sheer boniness of the rib cage, the hidden life within the muscles. The tapered body and the pose itself glow with a dynamic force. The shadowing under the arm looks like real underarm hair.
This is a preparatory drawing for the dead figure between the dragon and the princess in Saint George and the Dragon (1553). The reclining man in this painting, however, is fully dead, fully inert; his presence lacks power compared to the drama of the fleeing princess with her loosely painted red robes. She is in the act of running out of the painting. The man merely fills up some space. This gap between the images of the man in the drawing and the painting is almost the same as the gap between an idea or an image a writer might have, an idea that seems perfect in note form, and perfect also as you prepare to place it in the right context. But then, almost because too much thought has gone into it, and too much confidence, it appears dead on the page.
Ruskin emphasized the “wildness” of Tintoretto; Vasari wrote that his work was “swift, resolute, fantastic, and extravagant” and that he worked “at haphazard and without design, as if to prove that art is but a jest.” Vasari, however, was of two minds about Tintoretto. As well as emphasizing that he “dashed his work off by mere skill of hand,” he wrote that the painter had “the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced.”
The exhibition seeks further to complicate this view by including some tense dramatic paintings. Tintoretto’s The Flagellation of Christ (late 1570s), for example, from the Picture Gallery at Prague Castle, was once a much larger work, as we can see by the partial presence of figures at the edges. Whoever cut it down to its present size may have done it a great favor. It is now a stark drama between torturer and victim in which we can see the face of neither. The man with the whip has his broad back to us; the figure of Christ is struggling to untie himself and his face is turned away.
The image is caught in the moment before the flagellation begins. The torturer has his right arm outstretched. The two strands of the whip are being flexed in plain sight; they have an ominous, wriggling, nervous presence in the lower-right side of the painting. Christ here is young and strong. He is so involved in his fight against being tied that he does not see how near the first moment of violence is.
What we get is the closeness of the two men, one all power, the other all struggle. In the brutal intimacy of what is about to occur, they are not posed to illustrate a moment from the New Testament, but they are caught in this untidy moment, filled with their own human concerns. The moment, however, is not merely untidy; it is also focused. The painting is deliberate and designed; the central image is deeply considered; the drama being enacted is precise and controlled, and all the more emotionally piercing for that.
The energy in the work allows us to imagine the two faces that are hidden from us. The torturer’s back is arched and Christ is leaning forward: we can envisage not only their faces in the moment of the painting but also in the moment that will surely follow. The scene is washed in a sort of burnt orange that gives way to dark shadow and flesh tones bathed in shadow. The two strands of the whip are red on one side. The darkness and the somber, muted tone of the painting add to the drama in which Christ comes to us not as a redeemer but as a prisoner, a vulnerable mortal.
If Tintoretto can insist on the worldly, on the frailty of the human, in a painting like this, in other paintings of Christ’s passion and death he can suggest the iconic. This is most apparent in The Deposition of Christ (1562), in which there are five figures. Mary has fainted, and much of Christ’s face is in shadow.
This is an exquisite piece of choreography. The Virgin’s face is not merely in repose; she is not just sleeping. Instead, she seems like a statue, a face rendered in marble, someone in another realm. Her face is not expressionless so much as beyond expression. The two women and one man in the upper part of the painting, on the other hand, are pure mortals. The middle one has her arms outstretched in awe at what has happened. The wrinkled robes of the women suggest movement, panic. But Christ, like his mother, has moved out of life; his body is pure mass and weight. We can see that his mouth is open and sense the suffering in his half-occluded face.
The design of the five connected figures in the painting is rigorous, like something that unfolds, but it also allows drama and a sense of quickened life to emerge. What becomes clear in this painting and in The Flagellation of Christ is how fascinated Tintoretto was by legs. Christ’s legs in The Deposition have a dense muscularity, even in death. In the earlier painting, the torturer’s legs suggest balance, motion, intent, will. Christ’s right upper thigh is lit with care and relish. It too has strength that adds to the tension in the painting as this strength tries to release itself from being tied up.
While the exhibition at the National Gallery attempts to reimagine Tintoretto as a painter who comes in many guises, it does not seek merely to present him in a new and narrow light as a portrait painter and a religious painter of neatly imagined dramatic scenes. These are merely aspects of a talent that cannot be easily confined. The exhibition also reminds us that Ruskin was right about Tintoretto’s wildness, apparent in a number of paintings filled with the fierce absence of any sense of repose, paintings whose pattern is not easy to discern but whose impact is forceful and shocking because the eye does not know where to settle. Each shade and color, each face and object call out for attention without our losing the sense that every painting is of a single place at one single moment.
These are action paintings, animated by theatrical zeal. They caused Théophile Gautier to call Tintoretto le roi des fougueux (the king of the fiery or impetuous), and they made Henry James write:
When once [Tintoretto] had conceived the germ of a scene it defined itself to his imagination with an intensity, an amplitude, an individuality of expression, which makes one’s observation of his pictures seem less an operation of the mind than a kind of supplementary experience of life.
Tintoretto painted at least nine versions of the Last Supper. James admired the one that hangs in San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice for “its long, diagonally placed table, its dusky spaciousness, its scattered lamp-light and halo-light, its startled, gesticulating figures, its richly realistic foreground.”
The show at the National Gallery has an even better and more startling Last Supper (1563–1564), from San Trovaso in Venice (see illustration above). The scene here is fully chaotic; it is as though an explosion has taken place. Christ is at the center in the upper part of the painting with an archway and a view of a landscape behind him. He alone seems stable and serene and in command. His right hand is gesticulating. He is speaking. All of the apostles are in a state of shock and agitation as they lean forward on the table or put their arms out or move away.
This has all the aura of a secular scene, with nothing holy or graceful about it. While there is a vague halo around Christ’s head and he is clearly the leader, the one being listened to, it seems most unlikely that, with this motley crew for company, he could be about to redeem the world. The clothes of his followers are poor, as is the table itself, with half-eaten food on display. There is an overturned chair. At the left side there is a boy whose expression is more placid than those of the followers of Christ. Judas, who will betray Christ, is on the right side.
The composition exudes excitement, amazement. Each figure is distinct. The eye moves toward Christ at the center, but then from figure to figure, each one, in all the originality and singularity of his pose, drawing attention away from the center. This image, with its shock value and untidiness, seems as though it was made quickly, in the same white heat of surprise as the scene itself suggests. Yet despite the sense of movement and haste, the painting is fully coherent. As the catalog points out, Tintoretto’s search for variety “during the preliminary phases of elaborating the picture is confirmed by a preparatory drawing with detailed studies of three figures in the composition.” What appears spontaneous in his work often came from considerable preparation, building the face by starting with the skull, painting nudes and then covering them with clothes.
While Tintoretto could dramatize central moments from the New Testament as strange, worldly events, he could also take moments from mythology and make them vivid. The best of these paintings in the exhibition is perhaps Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (1545–1546), a richly comic scene. Once more, we witness Tintoretto’s interest in legs, as Venus’s, especially her right one, are painted with voluptuous energy and directness of line.
This is disturbed space, something that attracted Tintoretto deeply. The world around the figures consists of masses of wrinkled material, circles within the floor tiles, windowpanes, and many sorts of refracted and shadowy light, plus a mirror that captures Vulcan’s back. This amount of activity means that you can barely notice, on first glance, that Mars is hiding under the bed until the presence of a barking dog pulls the eye toward him. And then the eye is held by a dart of light on his helmet.
Vulcan is all sinew and muscle against the smoothness and shapeliness of Venus, whose creamy presence fills the left side of the work. The sexuality here is raw and direct. The painting is busy, good-humored, almost mischievous. It is an example of the painter’s many-sided interest in the unsettled spirit, in the world in all its vulgarity. And then, as in the beautifully created figure of the naked Venus, the painter’s interest in the mystery of the human figure takes over; he becomes energized by the look and feel of flesh, by the line of the body, by the amount of felt life and hidden energy in the face. This tension between Tintoretto as a painter fascinated by thrill and suspense and beguiled also by stillness and interiority has been captured convincingly and with some subtlety in a retrospective from which he emerges as a painter with an unsettled, fluid imagination, impossible to pin down.
This portrait, which hangs in Vienna, is the subject of Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters (1985), as well as a graphic adaptation of the novel translated by James Reidel with illustrations by Nicolas Mahler (Seagull, 2018). ↩