Tintoretto vs Leonardo and Rafael

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

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9 Responses to Tintoretto vs Leonardo and Rafael

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    Well I can’t resist trying to defend my old pal Tintoretto, even though I haven’t looked at him closely in many years. I’ve been struggling with a way to do this. One thought was to try to draw very primitive copies of all the works illustrated and then show the major lines in each. But that would be a lot of work and might not come out the way I expect.

    Then I thought: well what other artist reminds me of Tintoretto, especially in what seems like an abhorrence of geometry? What other artist seems hellbent on breaking the flatness of the picture plane and adding depth to the picture? Delacroix! If you look at something like The Death of Sardanapalus you can see a similar distaste for geometric stability. In fact Delacroix almost makes Tintoretto look classical.

    I confess that there was a time when my own work also was somewhat fond of this sort of wild escape from geometric stability. I don’t really know why I painted that way, nor do I know why Tintoretto or Delacroix did. But I think that maybe for some artists, in at least part of their work, there is just a need to concentrate on movement rather than stasis. Who knows why that might be or if it was even a similar motivation for Tintoretto and Delacroix?

    For a more contemporary example it would be interesting to compare the early works of Frank Stella, for which he became famous, which were about as static as could be, with the wild dynamism of his constructs from the mid-80s on.

    I guess all I’m saying is that every once in awhile an artist comes along who must feel that classicism, as beautiful as it may be to many, is stifling. Those artists itch to get out of the geometric straitjacket that they think holds them. And sometimes they do so in a fairly explosive way. I’m not quite sure if Pollock would also fit into this category. All in all I think I prefer classicism these days myself. But there’s no denying this need to revolt against it for some. My guess is that is part of Tintoretto’s motivation.

    By the way that really is a beautiful Veronese. I can see why you like him.

    P.S. I hope I’ve gotten the links correct here. It’s always difficult to know when you can’t preview the post.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    I have to add that in my haste to defend/explain Tintoretto I didn’t mention how enjoyable your post itself was. Do you think that those poor trodden flowers survived?

    Perhaps you should consider making tapes to accompany museum shows… They would create the type of lively interaction with the art that good art deserves.

  3. rich says:

    What a wonderful selection!
    What a supreme skill in those Tintorettos; the daring compositions, how he mastered those lighting effects.

    As to the “poor trodden flowers”: I’d agree to all the weaknesses of the Leonardo annunciation you point out, Swallows.

    But still there has always been something haunting me in that painting.
    This time, looking at it, I noticed something about the perspective, kind of a half visible triangle:
    Those angel fingers and the arm – and on the opposite side that strange pedestal of Mary, the folds of her garment…and other things, all of them contributing to a triangle, pointing to the sea and to the vastness of the horizon’s rim.

    The other examples, great as they are, do not have this vast perspective, in my view.

    So far my hasty response.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Rich: I see the triangle and where it points. Do you mean the other examples in this post? Do you think the vaster the perspective, the greater the picture? I noticed the absence of depth in modern pictures, but I didn’t know how to hammer out a theory.
    Also: Those “weaknesses” in the Leonardo are supposedly what Tintoretto saw, not me. I understand Leonardo better than I understand Tintoretto. Yet while I criticized or ridiculed Tintoretto I started to see good things and admire him.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Ken: Thanks for your ideas and the links. I didn’t know the later work of Frank Stella–very curious. I do see that there is plenty of geometry in Tintoretto’s pictures. But in spite of that he often manages to give a look of clutter or a lack of focus. He can rebel against classicism all he wants but let him do it with some skill. In many of the works I’ve seen there are clumsy or careless features. But that he felt as you say I don’t doubt. I have not seen his greatest works and since I know how irregular he is,I should really reserve my judgment on him.
    I’m going to have to devote more time to Delacroix, I can see that. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Tintoretto’s Fire « The Best Artists

  7. justme22 says:

    Hi Swallows,
    What a great post! As a person with no formal art education, I appreciate very much your approach in discussing these paintings; It almost seems his Annunciation could have been meant to be a direct spoof of Leonardo’s. As to his priority in this painting I think it was to convey a message: how out of the chaos and decadent ruins of the past, which are symbolised by the decaying column with the botched-up repair jobs and the junk, and for that matter the queenly bed, (as opposed to L’s pristine Tuscan villa and landscape), a new era of salvation was to emerge.

    I can’t comment much on your expert critiques, but if this painter was mainly self-taught, and whipped up paintings in no time at all where other masters would have taken months, then it’s no wonder that his paintings lack something. Obviously he went more for quantity than quality. If it would have been the other way around, or maybe if he painted only half of Venice, no doubt his departures from classicism would have been more successful. So now I am curious to go and find out more…

  8. Adam Miller says:

    Hi 100 Swallows,
    Great article. I can not say how much I enjoyed reading the work of an author able to look closely at these paintings and put himself into the world of the artists. I would add to the perspective discussion above that Tintoretto leads you into his perspective via an s curve in depth while Leonardo takes you back in a straight line which might explain the vastness of space in Leonardo’s work and the more dynamic but compressed feeling in the space of the Tintoretto.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Adam. For all his restless experimenting with perspective, Tintoretto does not manage to improve on Leonardo. I had a look at your page and some of your fine work and saw that you studied in Italy. Probably you’ve seen more Tintorettos than I have. He seems so sloppy at times.

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