Jacopo Tintoretto (1518–1594) has been considered by many, including John Ruskin and Henry James, to be the greatest artist of the Italian Renaissance. I’m embarrassed to confess that I was only vaguely familiar with his work until I had an opportunity to take in the current exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., marking the five-hundredth anniversary of his birth. “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice” is the first full-scale retrospective of the painter’s work in the United States, and includes forty-six paintings as well as ten drawings, many of which are on view for the first time in this country. It is on view until July 7, and well worth a pilgrimage.
Tintoretto’s vigorous and dramatic style has been compared to that of a filmmaker, and I was astonished by the sense of movement conveyed by many of his paintings. He was among the first to paint with oils on canvas, and his brushwork is often described as robust, even hurried. Things certainly move. In his narrative scenes, bodies are palpably in motion, and the human interactions—even in his religious paintings— are often as playful as they are portentous. You can’t help but be drawn into the action.
The Deposition of Christ (1562), showing Jesus taken down from the cross and placed in his mother’s lap, is one of the largest and most powerful paintings in the exhibit. The skin tones, musculature, and facial features of the figures are remarkably expressive, giving each character in the tableau a distinct personality. Evidently, Tintoretto drew his figures first as nudes before painting their clothing. The potency of bodies is unignorable. In The Deposition of Christ Mary has collapsed, presumably having fainted, her head held by a female companion. Her ashen face has a sculptural look to it. Jesus’ nearly naked body is almost brawny, yet inert in death. He is being held up by a broad-shouldered man while another woman stands over him looking aghast, her arms flung out in dismay or disbelief. The pathos and drama of the scene, the vibrant reds and blues, the play of light and darkness—Jesus’ face is mostly in shadow—all combine to create a raw emotional effect. It was Tintoretto’s ambition to draw like Michelangelo and use color like his former mentor and frequent rival Titian. He certainly pulls that off in The Deposition of Christ.