Birthday celebrations, for 16th-century Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto, include exhibits in Venice's Palazzo Ducale and Gallerie dell’Accademia, New York's Morgan Library (this year) and D.C.'s National Gallery (next year). Why does Tintoretto rate such protracted attention?

Shock art

Those in charge of the exhibits suggest the answer. Frederick Ilchman, co-curator for the display at the Palazzo Ducale, told the Art Newspaper, “Tintoretto’s fast and loose brushwork was viewed as radical and even disgraceful.” But not to be fooled by the “fast and loose brushwork,” co-curator Robert Echols cited his “subtle, understated” portraits.

Clearly, the painter was complicated.

High praise

Of course, it's not unexpected for organizers, of an exhibit extravaganza for Tintoretto, to tout him. They seek visitor attendance, after all. But it's hard to discount the laudatory words, spoken by 19th-century English art historian John Ruskin, when he first saw the artist's work, in the Sculoadi San Rocco, in Venice, in 1845. In a three-volume work titled, “The Stones of Venice,” Ruskin wrote that anyone who travels to Venice (the artist's hometown where most of his work hangs) ought to “give unembarrassed attention and unbroken time” to Tintoretto's paintings. The historian went so far as to rank the artist above all other artists of his time, saying,

“I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoretto.

Just be so good as to take my list of painters and put him in the school of Art at the top-top-top-of everything, with a big black line underneath.”

Bolder than bold

Given such high praise, one may ask, again, what makes Tintoretto so special? He's known for bold, high-drama picture-making. But so were a lot of other artists from the 16th century, known as Mannerists.

They were all anti-Renaissance, in their thinking, rebelling against the D Vinci canon of symmetry, balance, and harmony. Instead of repose, they sought to show the human condition as a struggle. And while Ruskin thought Tintoretto the best of the lot by what his biographer Carlo Ridolfi recounted in “Le maraviglie del'arte” in 1648, he was born great.

By his account, when the painter was a little boy, he drew boldly on walls with charcoal. When his parents saw this, they sent him to study with the painting master of his day -Titian. But that effort only lasted ten days. According to Ridolfi, Titian saw Tintoretto's work as “grotesque” and told him to go home.


Ridolfi also noted an occasion when Tintoretto, as an adult, was visited by some prelates and senators while painting “Paradiso” in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Observing how freely he worked, they asked why other artists like Titian were so laborious in their work, while he painted by fits and starts. Tintoretto answered, “These old men did not have, as I do, so many things filling their heads to bursting.” Ridolfi said that no one dared to bother him further.