One of the great painters of the Venetian Renaissance. Not as brilliant or consistent as Titian, he was a more dramatic and inventive composer and more emotionally expressive; and although his art also leads to the Baroque in its violent movement, it is much more tied to Mannerism. The inscription which is said to have adorned the entrance to his studio-disegno di Michelangelo e colori di Tiziano (Michelangelo’s drawing and Titian’s color) -expresses the essential synthesis in his art of the Florentine-Roman and the Venetian traditions. Born in Venice, the son of a dyer (thus Tintoretto, “little dyer”), he studied for a short time under Titian, with whom he could not get on, and was influenced by Bonifazio, Veronese and Andrea Schiavone, with whom he worked. He made many drawings after Michelangelo casts which he studied under artificial lighting and from strange angles of vision, producing studies in dramatic light and shade and with exaggerated foreshortening. He seems to have painted very boldly, alla prima (directly), and in a sketchy manner, often leaving works apparently unfinished.
His very early works are lost, but among the paintings which seem to date before his first famous dated work, the Miracle of St. Mark (1548, Venice Academy), are the Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles (Escorial), under the older Venetian tradition of Carpaccio and Bonifazio; the Last Supper (S. Marcuola, Venice), also retarded, but showing the influence of Parmigianino; the Birth of St. John the Baptist (S. Zaccaria, Venice), and the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes (Metropolitan). The Miracle of St. Mark, painted for the Scuola Grande di S. Marco, exhibits a new dramatic feeling as well as foreshortening. Characteristic of his style of the early 1550’s are the three paintings for the Scuola della Trinita (Venice Academy) : Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, and the Creation of Animals, all definitely Mannerist in attitude; and of the late 1550’s five decorative paintings in the Prado: Susanna and the Elders, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Judith and Holofernes, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and Esther and Ahasuerus. The development of a more dramatic sense of space and movement becomes apparent in the Presentation of the Virgin (1556, Sta. Maria dell’ Orto, Venice) and the Marriage at Cana (1561, Sta. Maria della Salute). He continued his decorations for the Scuola Grande di S. Marco in the middle 1560’s and produced two large works for Sta. Maria dell’ Orto: the Worship of the Golden Calf and the Last Judgment. In 1565 he began his extensive and protracted decorations of the Scuola di S. Rocco with the decoration of the Albergo, and continued in 1577 with the large upper room which contains some of his most stirring conceptions. He also undertook in 1578 decorations glorifying Venice in the Doge’s Palace, and in the same year two large cycles for the Duke of Mantua, but executed with the help of his studio.
Tintoretto’s late style is characterized by an intense lyricism and a fantastic transformation of reality. Typical of that period are the decorations of the lower room of the Scuola di S. Rocco (1585-90), grandiose in conception, overwhelming in their psychological intensity, and stupning in their aesthetic daring. Of the same period is the series of Miracles of St. Catherine for Sta. Caterina, Venice (1580’s). The culmination of his career are his last works in S. Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (1591-94), climaxed by the unearthly vision of the Last Supper, in all its fantastic space, movement and light. Though essentially a dramatic religious painter, he was capable of sensious Venetian lyricism, as, for instance, the Danae (Lyons), Susanna and the Elders (Vienna), or Arsinoe and Ganymede (Dresden). He was also a fine portraitist; although he was not as interested in individuality and material reality as was Titian, his almost starkly simple portraits are imbued with an inner fire and vitality which was his own: Doge Mocenigo (Venice Academy), Antonio Capello( Venice Academy) and his Self-Portrait (Louvre). He had a great influence upon the Baroque, but especially on the art of El Greco.