Tintoretto in Focus
The Met Fifth Avenue and The Morgan join commemorations of the Venetian artist’s 500th birthday
By Val Castronovo
Jacopo Tintoretto (c. 1518-1594) was the son of a fabric dyer, hence the name (“the little dyer”). He was one of a triumvirate of great 16th century Renaissance painters from Venice, along with Titian and Veronese. This year marks the 500th anniversary of his birth, which is being celebrated with a flurry of exhibits in Venice, New York and, come spring, Washington.
At The Morgan, curators have cast a spotlight on the artist’s drawings and those of his contemporaries and followers, including his talented son, Domenico (1560-1635), who trained in the father’s workshop and became his artistic collaborator and heir. Some 70 works are now on view, including a smattering of drawings tantalizingly attributed to a young El Greco when he lived in Italy.
On a recent Friday morning, we gathered at The Met’s Robert Lehman Wing for a chat about the master, part of the museum’s in-gallery series “Conversations with...” featuring the experts. Curator Andrea Bayer commenced a deep dive into “Tintoretto the portrait painter,” focusing on a small group of head and bust studies culled from the holdings of The Met and other museums and private collectors.
She made a beeline for the exhibit’s centerpiece, two closely related paintings of an unknown sitter — one, “Portrait of a Man,” belonging to The Met; the other, “Head of a Man (Portrait Study),” belonging to the Royal Collection of the Queen of England and kept in Prince Charles’s residence in the Cotswolds when not on loan. Bayer described standing on a sofa of the heir to the throne and examining the expressive portrait for The Met’s planned homage to Tintoretto.
“He was not there, just the dogs running around,” she said to laughter. Looking at the painting, she knew from the subject’s hair, clean shave and facial scar that the sitter in the picture belonging to the royals matched that of the more formal portrait in The Met’s collection.
“Everyone thinks about Tintoretto as a painter on a monumental scale, with huge narratives with dozens of characters, or of the interesting but routine portraits of the old men who ran Venice. What people do not know is that he was such an incredible observer of individuals and was looking to explore personality in small sketches. I found this group of them and decided to bring them together.”
Both studies were produced in the 1550s and are a departure from the idealized portraits of the period. “In the Renaissance, portraiture is mostly about showing your status, about capturing you at your best moment for posterity...it’s the opposite of warts and all,” she said.
Especially in the Royal Collection sketch, reality trumps perfection and thoughts of legacy: “Tintoretto has turned that [Renaissance idea] on its head. He has given us that man as he saw him, sitting in front of him. Look at the red nose. Look at the wrinkled brow and the quizzical expression. His eyes are rheumy. He looks like he’s getting over a cold. This is a portrait of that man, at that moment, totally unprettified up.”
Such an intimate portrayal, suggesting a special rapport between painter and sitter, has led scholars like Bayer to conclude that the subject must have belonged to Tintoretto’s social circle. He was not a doge (a ruler of Venice) or a patrician. He was more likely a patron from the large community of German and Flemish merchants living in Venice at the time, which would account for his odd-man-out look — the bangs, the longish hair, the lack of a beard.
The larger companion piece from The Met’s holdings has undergone a lengthy restoration for the removal of degraded varnish and now sparkles. Adjacent to the star attractions hangs the solemn “Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?)” (1550s). Bayer quickly dismissed the idea that it’s a portrait of the artist, arguing that she compared it to two self-portraits currently on view in Venice: “I took a careful look at the three digitally and am not convinced that we are looking at the same man.”
The eureka moment came when she compared the portrait here to a head in the crowd of a larger painting Tintoretto produced in 1561, “Wedding Feast at Cana.” She held up a reproduction of the biblical scene and points to a figure with “the same aquiline nose, arched brows, same tousled hair, same shape of the beard. It may really, really be the same man.”
Again, we don’t know the individual’s identity, but, given how close Tintoretto must have been to him to create such a penetrating likeness, we can surmise that the two overlapped socially and that the man is “an important patron,” Bayer said, part of the moneyed class that purchased major artworks.
“It’s so unusual and so startlingly modern, that when this painting first emerged from a private collection and was sold into another private collection, the experts looking at it said, ‘Are we looking at Tintoretto? Are we looking at something from the 17th century? Or are we looking at something from the 19th century?’ It has that quality to it that makes it leap out of its time.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Celebrating Tintoretto: Portrait Paintings & Studio Drawings”
Where: The Met Fifth Avenue, 1000 Fifth Ave.
When: through Jan. 27
WHAT: “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice”
WHERE: The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave.
WHEN: through Jan. 6
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