Through July 7, 2019, the National Gallery of Art is hosting America's inaugural retrospective of the Venetian master Tintoretto, who ushered in the late Renaissance with a flourish of drama, color and painterly magnificence.

The 50 works of Tintoretto on display, on loan from museums and private collections around the world, constitute almost 20% of the artist's total corpus and testify to his signature gift of capturing a scene "in media res." His works brim with such prolific emotion, movement and detail that his canvases appear like a still from a movie. In fact, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre referred to Tintoretto as the "first cinema director in history."

The rotunda of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Image: Pinterest The rotunda of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Image: Pinterest

Tintoretto was born as Jacopo Comin in 1519 in Venice and was dubbed Tintoretto, which in Italian means "little dyer," because his father was a dyer of cloths. His artistic talent was visible from a young age, so his father took him to the studio of Venice's foremost master of the time, Titian. However, perhaps due to Titian's recognition of the youth's immense talent, Tintoretto was let go from Titian's studio after just 10 days. From then on, Tintoretto was largely self-taught, studying Michelangelo's sculptures, which captured the human body realistically in various states of motion, and incorporating the brilliant use of color that he admired from Titian. Later, in his own studio, he would inscribe on the wall, "The draftsmanship of Michelangelo and coloring of Titian" to inspire his artistic process.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Self Portrait. 1548, oil on panel. Image: V&A Museum Jacopo Tintoretto, Self Portrait. 1548, oil on panel. Image: V&A Museum

Throughout his 20s, Tintoretto gained commissions and status through savvy business and marketing practices: he would give away artworks for free, set low prices for commissions and finish impressive works remarkably quickly. He acquired the nickname "Il Furioso" for his intense method of painting and his dominant personality, which was described as "a single peppercorn that takes over the flavor of a whole dish." His early self-portrait, completed when he was 29 and displayed at the center of the exhibit's first gallery, foretells the drama to come with his intense, searing eyes peering out of a luminous face contrasted by the dark background.

Tintoretto's themes were found in Greek and Roman mythology, Biblical scenes and Christian legend. The narrative quality of his oil paintings, despite their flair for the dramatic and unfinished, painterly strokes, were carefully planned and organized by the artist, first through drawings, before being painted on canvas.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Saint George and the Dragon, c. 1553, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Holwell Carr Bequest, 1831. © The National Gallery, London. Jacopo Tintoretto, Saint George and the Dragon, c. 1553, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Holwell Carr Bequest, 1831. © The National Gallery, London.

His storytelling abilities unfurl in his St George and the Dragon, the well-known tale of the Golden Legend, where a princess must be sacrificed to the dragon for the safety of her village, before St George defeats the beast. Tintoretto puts the emphasis on the fleeing princess, garbed in a rich blue and rose-colored gown, in the forefront as behind her a valiant St George spears the dragon, with a nude victim already lying at his side. Above, a heavenly glow emanates from the sky with an angel at the center, a reminder of the legend's Christian message and implications: St George killed the dragon in order to convert the townspeople to the faith.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Deposition of Christ, c. 1562, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice Jacopo Tintoretto, The Deposition of Christ, c. 1562, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

He brought the visual intensity of narrative to Biblical scenes as well, perhaps most apparent in the large-scale Deposition of Christ. A listless Jesus is carried off the cross, his face in shadow, while his body is bathed in light, the bloody marks on his defined chest and foot visible, as his mother Mary faints, her sallow face upturned, underneath her son. His style reveals a masterful command of chiaroscuro (the contrast between light and dark tones), rich color and the exquisite rendering of body torsion and facial detail.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Madonna of the Treasurers, 1567, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. © Scala/Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali / Art Resource, NY Jacopo Tintoretto, The Madonna of the Treasurers, 1567, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. © Scala/Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali / Art Resource, NY

Although Tintoretto's most famous works are his mythological and Christian scenes, he was also a very fine portraitist. Although Titian, 30 years his senior, was better known at the time, he traveled frequently to take commissions throughout Europe and the Holy Roman Empire, leaving Tintoretto the master of his home city. Tintoretto painted portraits of the city's most important leaders and citizens and created works that cemented the power of Venice's dynastic families. One of the most important works on display at the exhibit is the group portrait titled The Madonna of the Treasurers, that extends almost 17 feet across. The masterpiece aligns Venice's magistrates with the Three Kings, asking for the favor of the Madonna and baby Jesus.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Last Supper, c. 1563/1564, oil on canvas, Church of San Trovaso, Venice Jacopo Tintoretto, The Last Supper, c. 1563/1564, oil on canvas, Church of San Trovaso, Venice

One of Tintoretto's most repeated scenes was the Last Supper, of which he did nine different versions throughout his lifetime. His 1563 version, painted for Venice's Church San Trovaso, renders the Last Supper as a lively, informal meal between friends, with Jesus at the center, who leans back in his seat and speaks to his disciples, who are all engaged in a different phase of motion: some lean forward, one falls out of his overturned chair, another surreptitiously feeds the cat under the table, while another sleepily rests his head on the table and one sits shrouded in shadow in the corner. It was executed from an interesting diagonal perspective because it was originally hung in a chapel that radiated off the main altar and would have been viewed from that perspective.

Il Paradiso by Tintoretto and his studio, 1588. Image: Wikipedia Il Paradiso by Tintoretto and his studio, 1588. Image: Wikipedia

Tintoretto was awarded commissions around the city, from the interiors of confraternities to church altarpieces to the interior of the grand Doge's Palace, the waterfront residence of Venice's supreme leader. After a major work of the Doge's Palace was destroyed in a fire in 1577, a competition for a new painting was announced. Although Veronese, one of Venice's trifecta of great artists along with Titian and Tintoretto, won the commission, he died of an infection soon after and it was then awarded to Tintoretto.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Paradiso (modello), c. 1583, oil on canvas, Museo Thyssen‑Bornemisza, Madrid. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid Jacopo Tintoretto, Paradiso (modello), c. 1583, oil on canvas, Museo Thyssen‑Bornemisza, Madrid. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

He produced an elaborate oil sketch for the work showing Jesus crowning Mary as Mother of God surrounded by angels, the saved and cherubs, but the final masterpiece was mostly done by his studio, which included three of his children, and extends over 80 feet long, the largest oil painting ever made. The smaller sketch is a triumph in itself, done entirely by Tintoretto's masterful hand, with hundreds of detailed figures turning, reaching, floating and embracing in heaven.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Jerome, c. 1580, oil on canvas, Sala di Lettura, Ateneo Veneto, Venice Jacopo Tintoretto, The Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Jerome, c. 1580, oil on canvas, Sala di Lettura, Ateneo Veneto, Venice

His other religious masterpieces, such as St Jerome meeting Mary, which was painted for a jail because St Jerome symbolized penitence and Mary mercy, and God creating the animals, transformed the genre. Where religious scenes of the time were ordered and stationary, he added swirling motion, twisting bodies, bold contrasts and vibrant hues to create compelling tableaus with Biblical figures and Christian themes.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Creation of the Animals, 1550/by 1553, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice Jacopo Tintoretto, The Creation of the Animals, 1550/by 1553, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Viewing Tintoretto's mythological paintings, including a large-scale work of the Nine Muses, on loan from Queen Elizabeth II, and the wedding union of Bacchus and Ariadne, overseen by Venus, reveal lush, colorful stories that reveal a hidden symbolism. For example, the wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne is a visual metaphor for the inextricable link between the city of Venice and the sea, the source of its wealth through trade.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus, 1578, oil on canvas, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. © Photo Archive – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia Jacopo Tintoretto, The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus, 1578, oil on canvas, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. © Photo Archive – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

Tintoretto's crowning achievement, however, was the opportunity to decorate the interior of the Scuola di San Rocco, a confraternity in Venice. Confraternities grew very wealthy because they were similar to social clubs for Christians who would donate hefty dues and include them in their wills. He started contributing artwork to the confraternity in 1560 and would continue to until his death. The San Rocco is often referred to as Tintoretto's Sistine Chapel, with over 40 of his works adorning the walls and ceilings.

Scuola di San Rocco decorated with the artwork of Tintoretto. Image: Inside Veneto Scuola di San Rocco decorated with the artwork of Tintoretto. Image: Inside Veneto

The theater of Tintoretto comes to a denouement in the final room of the exhibit, a serene, dimmed space where the colors become subdued and the subjects more meditative. Two vertical panels on loan from the San Rocco face each other, showing Mary in quiet contemplation in a natural, wooded setting, conceived in browns, golds and ochre.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Virgin Mary Reading, c. 1582/1583, oil on canvas, Scuola Grande Arciconfraternita di San Rocco, Venice Jacopo Tintoretto, The Virgin Mary Reading, c. 1582/1583, oil on canvas, Scuola Grande Arciconfraternita di San Rocco, Venice

Mirroring the beginning of the exhibit, the last room features a self portrait of the artist, now aged 40 years, as marked by his drawn face, greying beard and solemn eyes that captivate the viewer, a masterpiece described by Manet as "one of the most beautiful paintings in the world." It was finished in 1588, before he began work on his magnum opus, Paradise, after which he largely retired from painting. In 1594, he passed away at the age of 75.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Self‑Portrait, c. 1588, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Jean Gilles-Berizzi Jacopo Tintoretto, Self‑Portrait, c. 1588, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Jean Gilles-Berizzi

The masterful Tintoretto infused late Renaissance-era art with a sense of drama, rich color, movement, expression and a realist quality that would become the hallmarks of future movements like the Baroque and Mannerism. The National Gallery of Art's magnificent exhibit puts the spotlight on Tintoretto's sensitive showmanship, which elevates painting to theatrical heights and explores the ways a narrative is disseminated through motion, color and composition.

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