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Tomasso Masaccio: Paintings & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and paintings of the great Italian artist Tomasso Masaccio and test your understanding about the Italian Renaissance, painting techniques, and the history of art.

Messy Painters

How would you define your painting style? If you've never put brush to canvas, think about the last time you painted a room, or even a house. Were you meticulous and organized, or did you just throw down a dropsheet and hope for the best? If you're a 'messy' painter, that's okay -- you're in good company. There have been several famous painters who were plenty messy as well. Masaccio may have been one of them.

Masaccio
Masaccio

Tommaso Masaccio, born Tommasso di Ser Giovanni di Simone (1401-1428), was one of the first great painters in an era of high artistic achievement known as the Italian Renaissance (roughly 1300-1600). The name 'Masaccio' was a joke given to him in his lifetime; Maso is a shortening of Tommaso and the -accio suffix meant 'clumsy' or 'messy'. Messy Tommaso was admired for his lifelike figures and his ability to create realistic spatial depth in his paintings, a technique that had been largely lost since the Roman Empire centuries before.

Background

When Masaccio was growing up, the dominant artistic style was called the Gothic style. It featured somewhat abstract with almost alien-looking figures that were never intended to look or interact in realistic ways. Little is known about Masaccio's life or education, but it was common that an aspiring artist would be an apprentice in the workshop of a master painter. The first documented evidence of Masaccio's life was when he registered as a master himself with the painter's guild in Florence in 1422.

Typical Gothic style
Gothic art

Masaccio began experimenting with techniques in painting that had rarely been used since the Roman Empire to create more realistic figures and space. He seems to have been influenced by the Italian painter Giotto, who was the first master to recreate the affects of realistic space.

Masaccio's Style

There are three techniques employed by Masaccio that really help explain this new style. When your eye looks at an object, some parts of it look further away. To represent this in a 2-dimensional space, the object is painted with the more distant parts appearing smaller. This is not a proportionally correct version of the object, but is more visually accurate, and is called foreshortening. This affect is also aided with perspective. In your eye, all objects get smaller with distance at a common rate, and all lines converge on a single spot called the vanishing point. Artistically, this is a difficult effect to replicate, but when done correctly creates realistic spatial depth.

Finally, Masaccio often used a technique called chiaroscuro, which is a high level of contrast between the lightest and darkest parts of the painting, to create deep shadows that help give the figures more realistic and lifelike appearances and spatial interaction. Masaccio's mastery of these techniques were incredibly influential on art and helped Europe transition from the Gothic to the more realistic Renaissance style of art.

Works by Masaccio

San Giovanale Triptych (1422)

One of the first recognized paintings by Masaccio is the San Giovanale Triptych from 1422. In this triptych, an altarpiece with three parts, the mixing of artistic styles makes a unique composition. Like in most Gothic art, there is no sense of background, just a flat sheet of gold. However, Masaccio created figures that show some foreshortening and realistic shadows. Also, check out the chair holding the Virgin Mary. The lines and angles all point in the same direction, using linear perspective to create spatial depth.

San Giovanale

The Tribute Money (1425)

In 1425, Masaccio began work on a series of frescoes, or wall paintings, for the Barancacci family's personal chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine of Florence. The Baranccaci chapel frescoes are amongst Masaccio's most famous and are where his talent truly began to shine.

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