Tintoretto: Biography, Paintings & Drawings

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

In this lesson we take a look at the art of Jacopo Tintoretto, a Venetian painter of the sixteenth century. Tintoretto introduced Michelangelo's style of dramatic rendering of the human figure to the art world of Venice. Renowned for his energy and speed as a painter, Tintoretto left a lasting mark on his native city.

Introduction -- Il Furioso

In sixteenth-century Venice, if you had a space you wanted filled with paintings, the man you called was Jacopo Tintoretto. Tintoretto's nickname, 'Il Furioso' referred to the legendary speed with which he finished commissions, as well as to the great sense of energy and movement that animated his work. Historians assert that Tintoretto displayed the slogan 'Michelangelo's design and Titian's color' in his workshop. As this bold claim suggests, the ambitious and hard-working Tintoretto hoped to bring together the most striking elements of Renaissance art.

Tintoretto, Origin of the Milky Way
Tintoretto, Origin of The Milky Way

Thanks to his close study of the work of Michelangelo, Tintoretto knew how to create dynamic poses and dramatic compositions. These skills came in handy when he was called on to fill large spaces with scenes from the Bible or the lives of the saints. Always prolific, Tintoretto also painted mythological scenes and executed dozens of portraits. He is best known for his talent as a visual storyteller on a grand scale; working quickly, he focused on the overall effect, not on individual details, leading the viewers' eye straight to the action.


Tintoretto, Self Portrait as a Young Man (c. 1548)
Tintoretto, Self Portrait as a Young Man

Tintoretto was born in Venice in 1518 as Jacopo Comin, but since his father used the surname Robusti, earned during his service as a soldier of the Republic of Venice, Tintoretto is also known as Jacopo Robusti. His father was a dyer of cloth - a tintore - by profession, so young Jacopo became known as Tintoretto - 'the little dyer' or 'the dyer's son.' This was the name by which he would become famous.

Early biographers claimed that the young Tintoretto was a pupil in the studio of the most celebrated Venetian painter of the day, Titian. It is said that Tintoretto was dismissed once Titian actually saw his drawings, perhaps because he saw the young boy as competition. However, no one knows for sure how or where Tintoretto completed his artistic training.

Tintoretto, sketch of the head of Giuliano de Medici by Michelangelo
Tintoretto, Sketch of the Head of Giuliano de Medici by Michelangelo

What we do know is that Tintoretto greatly admired the work of Michelangelo, especially his depictions of the human body. The great painters of Venice had been known for their sophisticated handling of light and color and the refinement and grace of their compositions. Tintoretto's fascination with the body in action and with the dramatic possibilities of shadow and perspective would introduce something new to Venetian painting.

Though Michelangelo's Florentine influence was huge, Tintoretto's career path was entirely Venetian. The head of a large workshop, he competed for commissions to decorate significant local institutions. Among the most important of these were the Scuole Grandi ('great schools'), religious organizations open to all male citizens, dedicated to charity and community service. The Scuole also played an important role as patrons of the arts. Tintoretto first made his name painting scenes from the life of St. Mark (patron saint of Venice) for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, while the many paintings he later completed for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco rank high among his masterpieces.

Tintoretto, The Prayer in the Garden, Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Tintoretto, The Prayer in the Garden, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto's fabled speed as a painter served him well. Another painter, Sebastiano del Piombo, supposedly said that Tintoretto could paint more in two weeks than he himself could in two years. When the Scuola Grande di San Rocco held a competition in 1564 to choose who would decorate their building, it's said that while other artists submitted scale drawings, Tintoretto showed up with a finished canvas ready to mount on the ceiling.

Interior of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco with paintings by Tintoretto
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

When he was in his seventies, Tintoretto, along with his workshop, completed what has been called the largest painting on canvas in the world, an image of paradise measuring 30 feet by 74 feet commissioned for the Great Council Hall in the Doge's Palace. Just a few years after completing Paradise, Tintoretto died in Venice on May 31, 1594, at the age of 75.


Tintoretto, The Miracle of the Slave
Tintoretto, The Miracle of the Slave

Tintoretto's paintings of the life of St. Mark (made, as mentioned above, for the Scuola Grande di San Marco), are perhaps the best introduction to his work. The earliest, The Miracle of the Slave (1548), shows the saint swooping down like a superhero to rescue a martyred slave. Tintoretto may have worked out the composition using small wax models suspended over a miniature set. He also used contrasts of light and shadow to heighten the drama while employing a typically luscious Venetian color scheme.

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