Tintoretto: The Venetian ‘dyer’s boy’ who became an art legend

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St Mark's Body Brought to Venice (c. 1564)

May 31, On This Day  

Self-portrait, c. 1588

For his phenomenal energy in painting, he was also termed Il Furioso (‘The Furious’) as much of his work is characterized by his muscular figures, dramatic gestures and bold use of perspective, in the Mannerist style. Famed 16th century Italian painter identified with the Venetian school Tintoretto (born Jacopo Robusti) was born in 1518 and passed away on this day centuries ago — May 31, 1594. 

The Italian painter’s father, Battista, was a dyer, or tintore — hence, the son got the nickname of Tintoretto or “little dyer” / “dyer’s boy”. 

According to his early biographers, Tintoretto’s only formal apprenticeship was in the studio of another renowned painter Titian. However, it is believed that the latter angrily dismissed him after only a few days — either out of jealousy of so promising a student as per one account, or because of a personality clash as per another version). 

Despite Tintoretto’s continued admiration for Titian, from this time forward, the relationship between the two artists remained rancorous. In fact, Titian actively disparaged Tintoretto, as did his adherents. 

Besides this though, most of Tintoretto’s contemporaries both admired and criticized the speed with which he painted, and the unprecedented boldness of his brushwork. The Venetians reportedly said he had three pencils — one of gold, the second of silver and the third of iron. Wikipedia reports: “Tintoretto’s style uses long strokes to define contours and highlights, and his paintings emphasize the energy of human bodies in motion, and often exploit extreme foreshortening and perspective effects to heighten the drama. Narrative content is conveyed by gestures and dynamism of figures rather than by facial expressions.” 

Tintoretto’s pictorial wit is evident in Saint George, Saint Louis, and the Princess (1553). In the usual portrayals, Saint George slays the dragon and rescues the princess — but this painter subverts that. He shows us the princess astride the dragon, holding a whip. Art critic Arthur Danto described this as having “the edginess of a feminist joke” as “the princess has taken matters into her own hands”. 

Saint George, Saint Louis, and the Princess (1553)

Interestingly, Tintoretto painted two self-portraits. The first (ca. 1546–47; Philadelphia Museum of Art) has been called “the first of many artfully unkempt images of the self that have come down through the centuries”. In it, he presents himself without the trappings of status customary in self-portraits before. The image’s informality, the directness of the subject’s gaze, and the bold brushwork visible throughout were innovative. The second self-portrait (ca. 1588; Louvre) is an austerely symmetrical depiction of the aged artist “bleakly contemplating his mortality”. Years later, Édouard Manet, who painted a copy of it, considered it “one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.” 

The Last Supper (1594)
The Flight into Egypt (c. 1582)
Christ at the Sea of Galilee (c. 1575–1580)

The crowning production of Tintoretto’s life was the vast Paradise painted for the Doge’s Palace, in size 9.1 by 22.6 metres (29.9 by 74.1 feet), reputed to be the largest painting ever done upon canvas. While the commission for this huge work was yet pending and unassigned Tintoretto told senators that he had prayed to God that he might be commissioned for it, so that paradise itself might perchance be his recompense after death. 

Paradise by Tintoretto

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