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For the next 12 weeks, one self portrait is a reason alone to visit the National Gallery of Art. It’s a piercing painting by Jacopo Comin, a Late Renaissance artist of Venice better known by his nicknames, Jacopo Robusti or especially Tintoretto (“little dyer”). The painting is petite but far from small. The portrait captures all the swagger of a painter who came to be called Il Furioso.
Tintoretto’s confrontational gaze arrests viewers. Framed by his shaggy curls and unruly beard, his face appears bathed in dim light, warm in the darkness. He wears an anonymous black tunic to blend in with the void around him; he is dressed in brushstroke. His composure is a flex, a declaration of ambition and restlessness. The close-in illumination is an exercise in chiaroscuro and intimacy, undisguised by jewelry or garments or other trappings of status. The portrait looks like it must belong to a later century, an exercise by Rembrandt or Goya or Courbet.
The self portrait is only the opening salvo. Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice assembles 46 paintings by the 16th century artist, an almost unheard of showing of works by an Old Master. Tintoretto brings together animated religious paintings as well as royal commissioned portraits that showcase the currents of the Late Renaissance, and how Tintoretto brushed up against them. This is the artist who had the audacity to (allegedly) tattoo a boast on his studio walls: “The draftsmanship of Michelangelo and the coloring of Titian.”
While his mature painting lived up to his own hype, Tintoretto’s billing as a Renaissance painter never has. For much of the last 500 years, he has never ranked higher than a second tier behind his betters (namely Michelangelo and Titian, but also Veronese, another contemporary and a fellow Venetian). Tintoretto takes the painter at his word. Beyond the bravado, the exhibit explores how he worked as a painter—and, crucially, as a brand—to make artworks that show a deep awareness of the new discoveries in painting all around him. What makes him Tintoretto is not how well he coupled disegno with colorito but how his paintings still look out of time today.
Highlights on view include “The Last Supper” (1563–64), maybe the most cinematic version he ever painted. In this work, Tintoretto strives to deliver not a scene but a still: The exact moment of Christ’s explosive revelation that one of the men around the dining table will betray him. The disclosure triggers shock as his followers lean in or pull away, aghast, generating a swirling motion around the table. A chair is overturned. One of the disciples reaches for more wine. Judas lurks in backlit shadow. Tintoretto renders the narrative through action, movement, and tilted perspective, but he also attends to significant details, like the serviceable chairs and modest tablecloth. With this experimental painting, Tintoretto emerges as a showy director and careful producer.
“Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan” (1545–46), a painting that is sure to be a fan favorite, captures an erotic farce: The blacksmith god walks in on his wife, the goddess of love, while she’s making time with the god of war. Vulcan peers underneath Venus’ disheveled skirt for scandalous evidence as Mars hides under the table, trying to shush the dog. Figures in the painting are said to be allusions to works by both Michelangelo and Titian. These callouts aside, Tintoretto’s innovation here is a mirror that depicts Vulcan’s back, a kind of inset painting that references Renaissance arguments about the priorities of sculpture and painting. Like Venus, Tintoretto is having it all. His painting gestures ahead about a century to Velázquez and “Las Meninas” (1656).
Curated by Robert Echols, an independent scholar, and Frederick Ilchman, chair of European paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Tintoretto builds on the truly unprecedented 2007 retrospective at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado. Both curators worked on that show, which established Tintoretto as an overlooked voice of the Late Renaissance. This time, the curators set out to explore contexts for his work (especially in an unlikely presentation of his portraits), above all by simply bringing together so many paintings under one roof.
The only place to see more of Tintoretto’s work is in his native home of Venice, and in fact, Tintoretto made its first stop there, at the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), for the first intentional show of the artist’s work in Venice in decades. And while some Tintoretto paintings that can be seen every day in Venice are dearly missed in this presentation—none more so than “The Miracle of the Slave” (1548), his breakthrough, originally commissioned for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel—several examples illustrate the artist’s sometimes odd fit within the Cinquecento.
“Il Paradiso” (1588) is one of those paintings that never leaves Venice. Produced late in his life, it was a triumphant commission for the Doge’s Palace, nearly 72 feet wide and installed in pride of place. The National Gallery of Art got the next best thing: a modello that Tintoretto produced in 1583 to prepare for the high commission. On loan from the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, this oil painting runs nearly 17 feet long. While the final commission was executed largely by the many assistants of his busy workshop, Tintoretto produced this draft himself, making it all the more monumental in this presentation. This all-over composition showcases the artist’s admiration for the heroic, muscular form—the preoccupation that would come to dominate mannerism—as well as the sketch-like quality that was all Tintoretto’s own.
The hastiness in Tintoretto’s brushstroke is best seen in a roundup of his Venetian portraits, an unexpected delight in Tintoretto. Monographic painting shows usually sprinkle portraits throughout the galleries chronologically, which can make a painting of a nobleman seem like an afterthought alongside a sweeping deposition of Christ. Here, Echols and Ilchman have isolated Tintoretto’s portraits, allowing works like “Man with a Golden Chain” (1560s) to stand out. The dabble of white paint that signals the frill on the subject’s collar is a top moment in the show, and another example of a painting that could have been produced 200 years later.
To complement the main painting show, the National Gallery presents another exhibition, Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice, which compiles some 80 drawings by Tintoretto, his workshop, and his admirers. Organized by the Morgan Library & Museum, this show advances the provocative thesis that a number of drawings—pulled from collections around the world and attributed unconvincingly to several artists— are in fact the work of El Greco, who lived in Venice for a time and favored Titian and Tintoretto. Still another show, this one produced by the National Gallery, foregrounds etchings and engravings by the artist and those in his orbit. Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto is drawn largely from the National Gallery’s own collection.
It can’t be overstated how remarkable it is to find so many Renaissance works gathered in one place. Seeing them in a neutral disposition—in the National Gallery, a relatively humble setting compared with an opulent Venetian palace—helps to underscore certain Furioso facts. One is how industry drove his production. For a painter as prolific as Tintoretto, his secular (or mythological) paintings are rare; the classical paintings on view represent a small smattering that still survive, since these were often executed as private murals or frescoes. Another is how production was his industry: Tintoretto’s workshop’s output is a theme that emerges in all three shows. If he is not remembered as well as other Late Renaissance artists, that’s in part because he lent his name to so much.
The last work in the main Tintoretto survey is another self portrait, this one conducted in 1588, near the end of his life. The glaring light that falls on his face is harsh. His hair has grown white, and his long beard is stately where it once was wild. The impudent twinkle in his eyes from the picture he made 40 years earlier is gone. This self-portrait conveys his command but also a sense of fear or isolation. That undertone, barely there but still detectable, the thoughtfulness in his careless brushstroke, makes Tintoretto timeless.
At the National Gallery of Art to July 7 and 9. 6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 737-4215. nga.gov.