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Tintoretto - The Morning Of Impressionism

( Originally Published 1912 )

The ugly actual, lo, on every side
Imagination's limitless domain."

ROBERT BROWNING, Gerard de Lairesse.

THERE is a sense in which we may say that all Art is Impressionism. It is certainly the function of all Art to convey an impression of some kind. Yet the word as at present used has a certain specific sense, and, although somewhat vague, is not entirely void of definite meaning. In fact, Impressionism may be said to be the Art which endeavours rather to give an impression of the whole than of the parts. It is only because of the necessary limitations of the artist's material that any such plurality of aim should be necessary, and in the very greatest artists, who have most command over their material, the impression may be nearly as vivid of the one as of the other. But, in any case, one mind is more inclined to a synthetic, another to an analytic view ; one is deductive and another inductive. We find that in the primitive art of all races the whole is merely treated as an aggregation of unrelated parts. All the care and attention is bestowed on the parts, and the whole merely grows out of them, almost as it were by accident. Even when this stage has been passed, the parts still retain an importance out of all relation to the whole. Detail still seems the supreme end. For though great attention is now paid to the whole, nevertheless, when the conflict necessitated by the particular medium or material comes, it is never detail that is sacrificed : that must be maintained at all costs, and the essential tone values or colour relations, and so on, go for nothing.

When the scale begins to turn we have Impressionism ; and now, when for the sake of the broad light effect or the general colour, or still more the primary conception, which after all is the whole, for which the picture was painted, something must give way, it is the detail that must go. To take the simplest possible instance—a portrait—then the furniture, the drapery, the landscape, must all sink back and be sacrificed. This is not the place to argue which is the truer conception of Art ; it is merely necessary to draw the distinction.

Although there are many instances of Impressionism before Tintoretto, both in Greek and Italian Art, and we cannot say that the dawn began with him ; yet he was the first man who resolutely in all his work considered the whole first, and subordinated everything to the one great conception, working at it with a fiery and impetuous zeal that gained for him the nickname of " it Furioso." Hence we may say that with Jacopo Robusti began the morning of Impressionism, and since his time the day has developed to such an extent that some would argue that we have now reached a late and garish evening.

We have already noted the care that he took in his youthful studies to overcome the difficulties of lighting, so as to give depth to his pictures. He wanted to get beyond the flat decorative effects of the earlier masters. Art was tending in that direction, it is true ; the difference between Titian and Bellini in this respect is very considerable, but the earlier masters were feeling their way somewhat cautiously. Tintoretto seizes his inspiration and flings himself into the work with the zest of a prophet. Whatever Titian was remarkable for, it was not depth, although we may not feel the lack of it because of the extraordinary brilliancy of his colour.

Of course the full attainment of depth and relief means a loss of detail ; but a great amount of detail in shadow is a departure from nature without any corresponding artistic advantage, as it only tends toward confusion instead of simplicity. So that even from the point of view of the merely imitative artist Tintoretto's position was a great advance.

A sense of relief, if not depth, was imparted by the earlier masters through the use of strong contrasts in local colour, and the arbitrary arrangement of tones, but not by a proper treatment of chiaroscuro. Tintoretto did not disdain these methods, and we have magnificent instances, as in such pictures as the Fall of Manna in S. Giorgio Maggiore, but he added so much beside. Perhaps one of the best examples is The Last Supper in San Paolo, where the lighting is strong and masterly, and the detail marvellous where there is much light, but in the deep shadows everything gives way to their luminous depth.

This concentration on the essential elements and subordination of the minor detail, which we call Impressionism, was mistaken for haste by Robusti's contemporaries, and Ridolfi tells how they came and worried him in his work, asking him how it was that he did not paint slowly and carefully, like Bellini or Titian. He put them off with a joke at their expense, probably because he thought the serious truth that he wished to convey was beyond them. We have already spoken of the Miracle of St. Mark, a picture nearly rejected on this account, but, as Thode remarks, it was merely a mistaken view of what was really breadth of treatment. On looking at the picture, for us it is almost hard to see to what they referred. The work is most minutely finished, so much so that at the shortest distance at which the whole picture can be viewed with comfort the technique is invisible.

It was Tintoretto who first really showed that not only must the technique be adapted to its medium, but at the same time, the whole effort must be concentrated on making a work of Art look at its best at the best point of view. These are two of the cardinal truths of impressionism. It is quite clear that, if we wish to repro-duce a head in marble, it is not enough to follow exactly the lines of the flesh, for the effect of light on marble is totally different, and allowance must instinctively be made accordingly. The same is equally true of paint, complicated by the fact that we are representing on a plane surface that which we see in the round. Obviously then the technique that is suited to marble is unsuited to wood, and that which is suited to water-colour is not so suited to oil.

Tintoretto set himself to discover what was the technique which was most suited to his particular medium. He then saw at once, possibly without thinking about it, what is now equally obvious to us, since we have been shown, and we wonder how we could ever think otherwise. It is possible to imitate in oil colour a piece of skin, or a small feather, or the like, so that looking closely into it the resemblance is fairly exact ; but at the same time this is not that for which the medium is best suited. It is also possible to imitate the same things as seen at a short distance, so that when the painting and the object are viewed side by side at the same distance the resemblance is absolutely exact ; they are indistinguishable. So far all is even too obvious, but what was not obvious, before Tintoretto, was that this latter pair would not be alike when looked at close together. Moreover, the reason is not, as has been and even now is sometimes erroneously supposed, because it is merely distance lending enchantment, and that the thing is really badly done. For if we take the first pair which resemble each other upon a close inspection, we shall find that at a little distance the resemblance ceases altogether. A remarkable instance appears in a modern pre-Raphaelite picture by one of the exponents of the school in a picture in the Ashmolean at Oxford. In the grass are daisies painted with such care that the yellow centres are distinct, and the white florets can be counted, if one looks so closely that only a few inches of the picture can be seen at a time. As one moves away the daisies becomer grayer and grayer, till at the distance at which the whole picture can be seen they have totally disappeared, instead of shining out, as daisies should shine, in the grass which surrounds them.

It is useless then to paint a head in a picture which looks at its best at about two feet distant if the picture is an altar-piece twelve feet high; because when one is two feet from the head it will be impossible to see the rest of the picture. This was the kind of thing that the early masters were constantly doing, so that every part of the picture demands a different point of view, and the effect which the whole is intended to convey is destroyed.

They probably thought that it was the necessary limitation of their material, but Tintoretto discovered that it was the improper use of that material.

In painting anything but the smallest pictures, it is remarkably hard to insure that this, which we call the best point of view, shall be the same for every part of the picture. In that grand picture of The Last Supper in S. Paolo in Venice, the head of the Christ appears at first sight very unsatisfactory, and it is not until we approach it, and look closely into it, that we discover that it is really a remarkably fine head. The fact is, that, in his endeavour to do justice to the Redeemer's head, Robusti has worked at it too closely, with too much of what is commonly called finish, and the result is a distinct blemish to the picture. In so many masters this is the rule rather than the exception that we come to regard their pictures as collections of fine bits, and even cut them up, or at least photograph them in parts, a thing that is practically impossible with Tintoretto.

There are of course other cases, and the Virgin's head, for instance, in the S. Rocco Annunciation must have struck most people ; but the marvel is not that there should be any, but that there should be so few. For when an artist is trying like Tintoretto to concentrate the effect into one view-point, his failure to do so is much more noticeable than that of the man who has made no such endeavour.

It must not be supposed that there is any intention of suggesting by this that imitation is an end in itself for Art. That we leave to the scene-painter ; but imitation has its place, both as a mere training in the use of his tools, and as the alphabet or language in which the artist must express what he has to say ; but, like language, though essential, it is a means and not an end.

Instances of Tintoretto's extraordinary power in this respect occur in every picture, and it would be difficult to select a special example ; but a very good one may be found in the Finding of the Body of St. Mark, in the Brera Gallery, Milan. The modelling of the partially nude figure of a man on the right, at the proper distance, appears as a most subtle piece of craftsmanship ; but, on approaching the picture closely, it seems incredible that subtlety could ever be the striking feature of those great broad strong touches of light drawn, it almost seems, with savage vehemence in a very fluid state through the shadows underneath. The method is familiar, but the power that lies behind it is not. With other men these strong touches would have looked sketchy to the last ; but with Tintoretto the variations in the single stroke are so true that, directly we are far enough away for the hair marks of the brush in the stroke to be invisible, we have all the subtlety of modelling and light and shade, and at the same time a brilliancy of colour with no suggestion of teasing, that could be gained by no other method, and is the envy and despair of the colourist who comes after.

It is a typical impressionist picture of consummate power that can hardly fail to strike the most casual observer. Even the hasty foot of the American tourist pauses before it, sometimes for many seconds, although not starred in the guide-book, and I have seen many people stand and look at it who did not know who it was by, and had never heard of Jacopo Robusti. This does not prove that it is a great picture, but it proves that at least it has the power to impress, a not altogether unimportant quality ; and the picture is worthy of being considered at some length. It is low in tone, but with wonderful colour ; the upper part is cool with fine blue grays, while the lower part is of a rich golden brown. A rather startling note of colour is introduced into the picture by the figure on the left, which is clad in robes of blue and a high-toned red much cooled. This kind of thing is not uncommon with Tintoretto : his colour often emphasizes some point in the story, and here the intention is evidently to mark that the saint, although with the actors in the drama, is not of them.' The delicate variety of colour in the golden browns of the female figure on the right is a characteristic piece of the master's best work.

The interpretation of the subject is not obvious, and some writers have fallen into error, so that we may be pardoned for attempting to describe the scene that is taking place. Down the right-hand side of a "barrel-vaulted " mausoleum are ranged a series of sarcophagi, painted with a mastery over the technique of texture that puts to shame the modern trickster in marble or other feats in still life. On the left stands St. Mark, distinguished by the halo and the above-mentioned colour. Only by his presence do the searchers know which is the body that his spirit tenanted on earth, and he points to the one which tradition says is being taken down by Buono, Rustico and Stauraco.

The body at his feet, then, is not the saint, but either one that they have already taken down, or one that has been brought to replace the stolen relic. On the right, a demoniac clings convulsively about the knees of a woman ; while the evil spirit, at the presence of the saint, passes from him in the form of smoke. Perhaps it is not a stretch of fancy to imagine that the kneeling man who holds him, and whose falling drapery rather suggests a shroud, has himself just been miraculously restored to life. The kneeling figure looking toward St. Mark is said to be Tommaso of Ravenna.

Tintoretto's impressionism developed and strengthened as he grew older, and we find a unity of conception and apparent lack of effort about his later works as compared with earlier productions. The Last Judgement, in S. Maria dell' Orto, shows the germ of this great idea, which is perhaps most fully if not most happily realized in the huge canvas of The Paradise.

Such is a brief account of the principal truths that Robusti taught in his impressionism; some of the minor points will be more appropriately considered under the head of particular pictures.

Masters Of Painting - Tintoretto
Painter/Artist: Tintoretto
Venetian School Of Painting - Tintoretto
Tintoretto - The Last Supper
The Painters Of Venice
Tintoretto @ WebMuseum

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