A Master’s Arrival

The big, energetic, unwieldy paintings of Tintoretto come to Washington, spectacularly.

National Gallery of Art 
Through July 7

You don’t forget the look of Tintoretto. I don’t mean the way his art appears, although with its surface energies and tumbling depths that too is hard to shake. What I mean is the way he looks at you.

In “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” now at the National Gallery of Art, the artist locks eyes the moment you enter this celebration of the cinquecento Venetian painter. In his young “Self-Portrait” (c. 1546/47), Tintoretto looks back over his right shoulder as if he just turned to face your arrival. His black hair and raffish beard curl in the twisting movement. A raking light illuminates his right temple and furrowed brow. His expression challenges you with the same eyes that challenged the Venice of Titian nearly five centuries ago. It’s Tintoretto’s time now.

And what a time it is for this most Venetian of Venice’s 16th-century painters, a man who filled just about every local church and scuola, or confraternity, with his fevered vision. Last fall, Tintoretto exhibitions marking the 500th anniversary of his birth stretched from the Palazzo Ducale and Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice to the Morgan Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Now the attention converges on Washington. Three complementary Tintoretto exhibitions, focusing respectively on paintings, drawings and prints, have just opened at the National Gallery.

Tintoretto ‘Self-Portrait’ (c. 1546/47) PHOTO: THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART/A

Tintoretto ‘Self-Portrait’ (c. 1546/47) PHOTO: THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART/A

John Marciari of the Morgan Library and Museum has organized “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice,” while Jonathan Bober of the National Gallery has assembled “Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto.” Robert Echols, Tintoretto scholar, and Frederick Ilchman, chair of the Art of Europe department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are the curatorial team behind the painting exhibition, the first ever large retrospective of the artist in America. With nearly 50 canvases, it manages to communicate a comprehensive sense of the artist’s achievement despite the inevitable absence of such must-see works as his “Crucifixion” at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.

It is all a sight to behold. Those eyes in the young “Self-Portrait” do not just announce Tintoretto’s arrival. They also acknowledge our presence in his journey to get here. Tintoretto’s paintings of Christian stories and mythological scenes are not the ideal visions we see in Michelangelo. They are not the elevated and perfected scenes we see in Titian. His achievement—through compositions that are big, energetic and unwieldy—was to break the fourth wall of Renaissance art. He brought narrative art down to the real world with figures that look, fly and flop out of his paintings into our own space. And through his fulminating brushwork, drawing in paint, his high-wire scenes dare us to look away.

Tintoretto’s ‘The Origin of the Milky Way’ (c. 1577/79) PHOTO: THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

Tintoretto’s ‘The Origin of the Milky Way’ (c. 1577/79) PHOTO: THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

Born in either 1518 or 1519, the son of a Venetian dyer (tintore), Jacopo Robusti, who called himself Tintoretto, ranked poorly against the sensuous Titian and his own unruly talents until his breakthrough composition of 1548, “The Miracle of the Slave.” This painting of St. Mark flying into the picture space as if from above and behind us announced the artist’s own arrival. This image of a Christian slave saved from a doubting mob remains at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Reason to visit Venice after Washington.

The artist’s uneven early abilities, seen in such works in the opening galleries in Washington as his turbid “Conversion of St. Paul” (c. 1544), only deepen the mystery of how this breakthrough occurred. The whimsical “Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan” (c. 1545/46) hints at his developing sense for spatial dynamics. As Venus’s husband, Vulcan, searches for evidence of infidelity, only a barking dog (and you, the viewer) notices Mars hiding under the bed.

Tintoretto’s ‘Paradiso’ (modello) (c. 1583) PHOTO: MUSEO NACIONAL THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA, MADRID

Tintoretto’s ‘Paradiso’ (modello) (c. 1583) PHOTO: MUSEO NACIONAL THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA, MADRID

As his paintings got bigger and the arrangement of his figures more complex, through experimentation Tintoretto grew even more aware of point of view. Rather than map out his depictions of space in the studio, he studied how the placement of his canvases and our own point of view affected light and perspective on site. In “St. Augustine Healing the Lame” (c. 1549-50), we seem to kneel on the road of crippled figures. In “St. George, St. Louis, and the Princess” (1552), the shiny armor reflects a revealing glimpse of the princess that is lost on St. Louis but that we as viewers do not fail to see.

Tintoretto’s style ranged as far and wide as his furious abilities could take him. In his devotional paintings he went for every blockbuster effect his brush could produce. Jean-Paul Sartre justly called him “the first film director.” His c. 1583 modello, or proposal drawing, for the 72-foot-wide “Paradiso” at the Palazzo Ducale is technicolor magic. In its immersive tableau his “Last Supper” of c. 1563/64 could be virtual reality. His mythological scenes, such as “The Origin of the Milky Way” (c. 1577/79) and “Tarquin and Lucretia” (c. 1578/80), are cinematic masterpieces. Meanwhile his portraits of Venetian contemporaries are sober revelations of character. “No painter ever had such breadth and such depth,” observed Henry James.

“Tintoretto” ends as it begins, bookended with his only other extant self-portrait. Manet called Tintoretto’s late “Self-Portrait” (c. 1588), with its flowing white beard and sunken face, “one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.” His eyes had seen it all. Tintoretto worked up to his death in 1594. After half a millennium, all eyes now turn to him.