Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2019
Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, eds. Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice Exh. cat. New Haven, CT and Washington, DC: Yale University Press in association with National Gallery of Art, 2018. 336 pp.; 240 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300230406)
Palazzo Ducale, Venice, September 7, 2018–January 6, 2019; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, March 24–July 7, 2019
Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice, installation view of the "Mantle of Titian" gallery, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2019 (photograph provided by the author)

Visitors were nearly denied the opportunity to experience the first major exhibition in the United States of the monumental work of Venetian Renaissance artist Jacopo Tintoretto (1518/19–1594). Though the show was originally slated to open March 3, 2019, a shutdown of the US federal government grounded preparations for Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. It is a testament to the commitment of lenders, dedicated efforts of NGA staff, and the work of its curators, Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, that the exhibition opened three weeks later. Although the mechanics of exhibition organizing are not always forefront in viewers’ thoughts, logistics have impacted the exposure of Tintoretto’s larger oeuvre to audiences outside his native city, given the enormous scale of many of the artist’s works and their location in situ—frustrating even Napoleon Bonaparte in his attempted acquisition of the huge Il Paradiso in the Palazzo Ducale. In 2007, curator Miguel Falomir at the Museo del Prado in Madrid demonstrated that such obstacles could be overcome. At that time, Echols and Ilchman announced their project to comprehensively reassess the artist’s career. Their significant reduction and redating of Tintoretto’s oeuvre recovers the qualities that propelled him to fame and laid the foundation for the current exhibitions celebrating the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth.

The 2018–19 exhibitions between Venice and Washington were conceived with shared themes but organized differently, due to variations in loans and the added complexity of the Venice shows being held at dual institutions. The main exhibition, Tintoretto 1519–1594, was held at the Palazzo Ducale (curated by Echols and Ilchman with Gabriella Belli), and Il giovane Tintoretto (The Young Tintoretto) was held at the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia (curated by Roberta Battaglia, Paola Marini, and Vittoria Romani), the latter with examples of contemporary Venetian and central Italian artists formative to Tintoretto’s early development. A similar context was provided in Washington through two additional exhibitions of graphic media at the NGA, Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto (curated by Jonathan Bober) and Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice (Morgan Library & Museum and the NGA, curated by John Marciari).

The NGA presented a unified, primarily chronological view of the artist’s career through forty-six paintings and ten drawings. The inclusion of both of Tintoretto’s known self-portraits made the artist’s presence tangible: the exhibition opened with the youthful challenger’s fierce gaze (Philadelphia Museum of Art, ca. 1546/47) and ended up under the hooded eyes of the experienced artist who had overseen a career spanning more than half a century (Louvre, ca. 1588). A number of monumental works made their first appearance outside Venice, including two examples from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, often referred to as the artist’s “Sistine Chapel”: the recently conserved Virgin Mary in Meditation and Virgin Mary Reading (both ca. 1582/83). An outstanding feature of both cities’ shows was the impressive number of new conservation treatments on display. Also rewarding was the recontextualization of works from several American collections, including those in the NGA.

The initial sequence of rooms at the NGA chronicled the emerging artist. A virtuoso of the brush, Tintoretto was known for his exploitation of the medium, bold perspective, and dynamic figural treatment. His earliest dated work, a Virgin and Child with Saints (private collection, 1540), anchored a formative period lacking in secure information. Like many young artists, he executed decorative works that have been removed from their original sites and dispersed among collections, such as the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Contest of Apollo and Marsyas (1544–45): it was made for writer Pietro Aretino’s house, and at the NGA was hung as an overdoor panel to give a sense of its intended viewpoint. The NGA’s Conversion of Saint Paul (ca. 1544) demonstrates the artist’s awareness of and ambitions regarding contemporaries and collectors, referencing a famous work by Raphael in the patrician Grimani family’s possession.

Developing the theme of Tintoretto’s artistic process, Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan from Munich (Alte Pinakothek, ca. 1545/46) was shown with his only known complete composition drawing (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), as well as a Reclining Male Nude (Louvre) as preparation for the dead figure in Saint George and the Dragon (National Gallery, London, ca. 1553/55). Achieving effects of dramatic perspective and tension between their protagonists, these comparisons demonstrated Tintoretto’s careful compositional designs. Increasingly, the artist expanded the figure-scale relationship to challenge the picture plane, as seen in the reunited panels of the NGA’s Summer with the Chrysler Museum’s Spring (both ca. 1546/48) from a cycle of the four seasons for the Palazzo Barbo. A wall text recounts the artist’s “breakthrough” at this time with a photo of the “epochal” 1548 Accademia painting Miracle of the Slave for the Scuola Grande di San Marco that climaxed the Young Tintoretto exhibition in Venice (but did not travel to Washington).

At the NGA, a different focus emerged with the Accademia painting of the Deposition (ca. 1562) for Santa Maria dell’Umiltà. Visible in enfilade from several rooms away, its monumental figures seem to press against the surface of the canvas, illustrating the “heroic bodies” described in the wall text and visually supporting the curators’ reconsideration of this work as a primary exemplar of the artist’s early maturity (97–98). Tintoretto’s synthesis of the antique and use of contemporary small-scale sculpture was illustrated in drawings after the Grimani Vitellius (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich) and sculpture of Samson and the Philistines after Michelangelo (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).

Interrupting the exhibition’s chronological progression, the next large gallery focused on the portrait type, one of Tintoretto’s main business interests. As “de facto portraitist to the republic,” Jacopo supplied the male office holders of the Venetian government from his growing family workshop. This success, however, resulted in a muddy state of attributions the curators have attempted to correct but that still needs work. Female portraits formed only a minor percentage of Tintoretto’s production. The handsome Vienna Woman in Red (Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1550s) may be debatable; the curators acknowledge its inconsistencies with Venetian dress of the period (155–56). Tintoretto’s large-scale votive portraits commemorated those in high office, a type sometimes modified for private display, as with the NGA’s Doge Alvise Mocenigo and Family (ca. 1575), shown with a small portrait head of the doge’s brother (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, late 1570s) and, for the first time in North America, the outstanding Accademia painting Madonna of the Treasurers (1567), commissioned for the palace of the Camerlenghi at the banking center of Rialto.

The next gallery deftly balanced Tintoretto’s commissions for large and small parish churches and scuole (charitable institutions), including another first-timer to the United States, the Last Supper from the church of San Trovaso in Venice (ca. 1563/64), “perhaps his greatest” of the nine versions by this iconic sacred “storyteller.” The adjacent room reintroduced “Tintoretto at work” as the later studio became increasingly involved in large-scale commissions. The room presented unusual insight into techniques; Tintoretto’s use of wax models for drawing foreshortened figures was illustrated with a mannequin that accompanied the Metropolitan Museum’s unfinished Votive Portrait of Doge Alvise Mocenigo (1571/74). Inclusion of his over-sixteen-foot-long autograph modello of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s Paradiso (Madrid, ca. 1583) exemplifies the Venetian mode of preparation using the oil sketch on a large scale.

Titian’s death in 1576 opened up commissions in subject areas that artist had dominated, notably his mythological-allegorical “poesie.” Particularly rewarding here were Tintoretto’s Palazzo Ducale mythologies, the Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus and The Forge of Vulcan (both 1578), two of four made for the Sala Quadrato (now in the Anticollegio). As these works are not usually seen at eye level under gallery lighting, the NGA provided optimal opportunities to compare mythologies and histories of the same date from the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; Royal Collection, London; Detroit Institute of Arts; and National Gallery, London, affirming Tintoretto’s mastery of balancing male and female forms in space to produce narrative tension.

An elegiac and contemplative mood pervaded the last room of late work from San Rocco and the churches of San Silvestro (ca. 1580) and San Giorgio Maggiore (1594). The latter, Entombment—the artist’s final work—introduced his son and heir Domenico as executor of Jacopo’s original conception and composition and invited discussion of artistic identity within Renaissance workshop practice. The theme of the room, “changes over time,” also applied to these works as material objects, as Tintoretto used a dark palette and pigments (smalt blue and copper green) susceptible to discoloration. On exiting the exhibition, viewers were directed to a newly treated standout, Saint Martial in Glory with Saint Peter and Saint Paul from the church of San Marziale in Venice (1549), supported by the charitable efforts of Save Venice Inc. A “before” photograph of its former condition showed how the removal of discolored varnishes proved revelatory for the work of an artist like Tintoretto.

The chronological layout and themes of the exhibition generally corresponded to the exhibition catalog essays by various contributors; the book’s omission of traditional entries makes the closing “Checklist of the Exhibition” by Susannah Rutherglen an essential tool. The cocurators wrote a preface and overview of Tintoretto’s art, essays on the young artist as challenger to Titian and Michelangelo and on Tintoretto as “Portraitist,” and a “Coda.” They included other voices to promote a collaborative research environment: Stefania Mason on “Tintoretto the Venetian”; Rutherglen on “Façade, Ceiling, and Furniture Paintings”;  Roland Krischel on working practice; Michiaki Koshikawa on Tintoretto as “Draughtsman”; Mattia Biffis on the mature artist and sacred narrative; Peter Humfrey on “Tintoretto and the Altarpiece”; and Lorenzo Buonanno on “The Quest for Official Commissions.” For the artist’s later career as “Tintoretto, Inc.,” Miguel Falomir contributed the essay “Mythologies”; Maria Agnese Chiari Moretto Wiel wrote on San Rocco; and Giorgio Tagliaferro discussed the Palazzo Ducale. The catalog, which represents both venues, is beautifully illustrated and also features notes and a selected bibliography.

Tintoretto’s five-hundredth generated multiple exhibitions and publications and has given this artist much-deserved international exposure. These, along with forthcoming publications by conservation scientists and the return of newly treated works to their homes, should continue to provoke new directions of research and perhaps a substantially reconceived catalogue raisonné.

Tracy E. Cooper
Professor, Department of Art History, Temple University