Tintoretto was a revolutionary. He was bored with Rafael’s strict geometry and his genteel figures. He was told to go admire the School of Athens in the Vatican–
School of Athens, by Rafaello Sanzio
but all that pedantic grace and straight-jacket linear perspective made him fidgety. When he got an order to paint a Christ Among the Doctors, what he really painted was a sort of correction of Rafael’s great fresco. Here it is:
Christ Among the Doctors by Tintoretto
Did he improve on Rafael? He certainly messed up that school. His picture is crowded and, in spite of its own geometrical layout, muddled. Though there are over fifty figures, none is memorable except maybe the country model in the foreground, presumably Christ’s mother. Everywhere there are disappointing details. The yellow robe of the big doctor in front is an awkward piece of drapery; his feet are clubs, his left hand is cut off gracelessly. Mary’s forward-slanting leg and ugly feet are best not noticed. The steps are unconvincing. What is the empty space above everyone for? Relief? It only makes the clutter below it more unappealing. The colors are nothing special. There are no surprises.
Look at what Tintoretto’s friend Veronese did with this same subject. It is one of the great paintings in the Prado Museum of Madrid:
Christ Among the Doctors by Paolo Veronese
The organization of the picture is absolutely novel. The idea to have a pillar in the foreground, almost blocking our view of Christ, is new and curious and memorable. The doctor on this side of it wears a kind of yellow habit of Veronese’s invention and the black part of the cowl is striking, strangely beautiful. Many of the doctors both left and right of the pillar are great portraits of real men, or seem so, and they beg to be copied and remembered because of the originality of their poses and the expressions on their faces.
Tintoretto was put off by Leonardo’s style too. He looked at Leonardo’s Annunciation.
Annunciation by Leonardo
He must have thought: Isn’t all that prettiness and exquisiteness a bit silly, given the Bible context?
Does Leonardo think the Virgin was a noble lady who lived in a palace and wore costly robes? Where the devil did she get that reading table—from the Emperor Nero? And the view from her summer villa is a bit too idyllic. The angel is all decked out for his audience with the Virgin—maybe he should have worn livery. She must hope he doesn’t tread on her flowers for long. This isn’t the poor old Holy Land. It is Queen Mary’s court in the Garden of Eden.
So Tintoretto went and painted his own Annunciation:
Annunciation by Tintoretto
He has replaced Leonard’s idealism with story-telling and realism. A homeless Mary has “occupied” a former palace (judging by the queenly bed and ceiling of the old ruin). She is wearing brown robes with graceless folds (Tintoretto was particularly untalented when it came to drapery). Her cheap book is on her lap. Neither she nor the angel are extraordinary in any way. You forget their faces as soon as you turn from them.
Like Veronese in his Christ Among the Doctors Tintoretto has put a pillar in the middle of the scene. But this time we don’t feel it is blocking our view of something worth seeing on the other side. Tintoretto wants us to spend time on the pillar itself: we are supposed to delight in all its repair jobs. He also offers the junk-pile on the left for our consideration. It is a very competent junkpile. What is Tintoretto’s priority?
Beauty and grace—those achievements of Rafael, Leonardo, or Veronese—were simply not at the top of Tintoretto’s list of priorities. Other things, such as movement and lighting and anecdote interested him more than pretty faces. Yet it has to be said that when beauty WAS his priority he could conjure it up as well as the best artist of any time. Here are two of his captivatingly beautiful women: Helen of Troy and Lucrecia.
The Abduction of Helen, a detail (1578-79) Prado Museum, Madrid
Tarquin and Lucrecia (1578-80) The Art Institute of Chicago