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Church of San Trovaso, Venice

‘Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice’

“While the exhibition at the National Gallery attempts to reimagine Tintoretto as a painter who comes in many guises,” writes Colm Tóibín, “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. 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.

“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.”

For more information, visit nga.gov.

Category: Exhibition
National Gallery of Art
4th Constitution Avenue Northwest,
Washington, DC