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Vittore Carpaccio (c.1455-1526)

( Originally Published 1955 )

Italian painter of the Venetian school; of a slightly later generation than the brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, who dominated Venetian painting during most of Carpaccio's lifetime. He derived stylistic elements from both of them, and developed a characteristic manner of his own, utilizing elements of color, light and animated, realistic detail common to all Venetian painting of his period and related to the art of northern Europe. His emphasis on minute detail, especially in landscape, has led to the occasional mis-attribution of some works to Andrea Mantegna, who had an early influence on his art. Characteristic of Carpaccio's personal style is the use of many figures_ small in relation to the picture format, and the individualized, thin and angular or even awkward character of these figures. His skill as a draughtsman and his enamel-like, glowing paint surface have appealed to the Surrealist artists of the twentieth century, on whom his art appears to have had some influence. Whether Venice or Capodistria was Carpaccio's birthplace is in dispute, but it was more likely the former. Nothing is known of his early life- but he is assumed to have been a pupil of Lazzaro Bastiani. His first dated work (1490) is one of the scenes from the life of St. Ursula now in the Venice Academy. His services were apparently in great demand by the various scrrole or confraternities of Venice and his most important works were narrative cycles done for such institutions. He received payments for work in the Doge's palace in 1502, and in 1507 when he assisted Giovanni Bellini with work left unfinished by Alvise Vivarini at his death. In 1508 he was member of a commission to evaluate frescoes by Giorgione. In 1511 he wrote to Francesco Gonzaga at Mantua, offering for sale a large picture of Jerusalem, which the duke evidently bought, since it was later listed in an inventory of his collection. In the years 1516-23 he was at work at various times in Capodistria and nearby towns, but was back in Venice in 1523.

The works for which Carpaccio is best known are four narrative cycles executed for various confraternities. Earliest and most famous of these is the cycle on the life and martyrdom of St. Ursula (1490-95), painted for the Scuola di Sant' Orsola but now in the Venice Academy. Nine large canvases depict the history of the saint according to her story in the Golden Legend of Jacopo Voragine. Like Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio uses familiar settings of contemporary Venice peopled with citizens in rich and brilliant costume as background for the sacred legend. One scene in this series, the Dream of St. Ursula, is particularly renowned for its pervading and mysterious light, which enhances the dreamlike quality of the composition. The second major cycle is a group of nine scenes from the lives of Saints George, Tryphonius and Jerome, painted (1502-1507) for the Scuola di San Giurgio degli Schiavone, where they are still to be seen. Especially noteworthy in this group are the St. George Slaying the Dragon, with its strange and macabre details. and the St. Jerome in his Study, which, like the Dream of St. Ursula. subordinates the small figure to space and light. This series shows little or no stylistic development over the St. Ursula group. At about the same time he painted six scenes from the life of the Virgin for the Scuola degli Albanesi (now dispersed among museums in Bergamo, Milan and Venice). The fourth group consists of four scenes from the life of St. Stephen, painted about 1511-20 for the Scuola di San Stelano (also scattered, in Berlin, Paris, Milan and Stuttgart). The third and fourth series are inferior in quality to the first two, and were probably executed with extensive help from assistants. Notable among the many single paintings by Carpaccio are The Courtesans (Correr Museum, Venice), an extraordinary fragment of contemporary Venetian life (perhaps cut down from a larger composition), and a fine example in the Metropolitan, the Meditation on the Passion of Christ. Late altarpieces similar in type to those of Giovanni Bellini are in San Vitale, Venice, the Venice Academy, and the cathedral of Capodistria.

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