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Tintoretto - Colour, Drawing, And Composition

( Originally Published 1912 )

"No sketches first, no studies, that 's long past:
I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing."

ROBERT BROWNING, Andrea del Sarto.

TO no painter save to Jacopo Robusti has it been given to lay claim to be the world's greatest exponent in each of the three departments of Colour, Drawing, and Composition. Whoever we may consider to be the greatest of all colourists, he has Robusti for his rival. Similarly the draughtsman who surpasses him can only hold the highest place ; whereas it is doubtful if any can seriously maintain a position against him as a master of composition.

It is conceivable that in each case another might, after due consideration, be finally preferred ; yet the fact remains that there is no other who could make such a threefold claim.

The question of greatness of conception has purposely been omitted from the title of this chapter, as opening up too wide a field for discussion ; but it is doubtful if any other picture in the world approaches the majesty of conception in Tintoretto's great Crucifixion.

Taking, then, all things into consideration, we are forced to but one conclusion, that, if comparisons are to be made at all, there is only one man who can be said to be the greatest painter that has yet lived.

Moreover, it follows that to adequately treat of Tintoretto's colour, drawing, and composition would necessarily cover the whole ground of the theory of painting on its technical side, from which we are fortunately precluded by the size of this book, and thus it will be merely a cursory and partial examination that is in any way possible.

In looking at Tintoretto's colour one is struck in the first place by its extraordinary luminosity ; the colour seems to glow even in a somewhat low-toned picture. Or if such a metaphor be not entirely satisfactory, it might be said that his colour carries ; it has an unusual power to make itself felt.

And the cause of this does not depend upon any one circumstance alone. It has already been pointed out how great a use he made of comparatively colourless portions of canvas approaching to black and white. By these means the colour is enhanced as a jewel in its setting, or as the finest old glass with its clear lights, that was quoted before. But not only is this the case, but by these means he gains in scale of tone and colour. It is quite obvious that paint can never render the full scale of tone or colour that even a scene by candlelight will have in nature, much less the greater though more delicately graduated scale of daylight. Tintoretto then was not going to handicap himself, as so many do at the outset, by shortening his scale ; and for the most part we shall find this principle observed. Such pictures as The Last Supper in S. Paolo, or The Miracle of St. Agnes, or The Gathering of Manna in S. Giorgio Maggiore, are excellent examples. Further, this has enabled him still more effectively to treat those subtle gradations of tone and colour that he loved. Moreover this want of colour in the high lights and the shadows is, after all, only the following out of the principles of nature. The so-called realist is often most ridiculously at fault in this particular, his realism being only the worst convention of all. If an object is very brightly lit, it is unable to absorb fully those rays of the spectrum which it naturally should, and consequently reflects back besides its own colour-rays a large quantity of white light also ; or, as we sometimes express it, the high lights of an object lose their colour. Similarly the object in shadow absorbs all the little light that falls upon it, and has little or no colour to reflect. Hence it is the half-tones that will be most completely full of colour. Many other masters have not realized this at all, and none so fully as Tintoretto. Titian will often give his fullest colour in the shadows, whereas the moderns often make the worse fault of putting it in the high lights. It is not because it is contrary to nature that we find fault with them, because it might be a beautiful convention, but because the result is confused and flat and loses its power.

Doubtless a great deal of his mastery over the subtlety of colour was learnt by painting in a much shorter scale, keeping the whole colour scheme well under control. Many of his works, particularly those that are supposed to be earlier, are painted in a subdued, golden, low-toned brown. It is most interesting to note how the early work of Turner with its gloom-haunted browns was yet the forerunner of brilliant colour, and it is not too much to say that the subtlety learnt in these less resplendent efforts was the secret of the power that both masters had over the more brilliant hues of their most celebrated works. Of these two masters almost alone can it be said that their brightest colour was never garish.

But much of the luminosity of Tintoretto's colour depends on its freshness. His colour is never teased. In some cases it has been worked in a very fluid condition, and one colour has been drawn through the other, as we see in many of the S. Rocco pictures, or again in The Finding of St. Mark's Body at Milan. More often the same effect of broken colour has been obtained by the very light mixing that has been given on the palette, varying degrees of such treatment being found between such a picture as The Presentation in the Gesuiti, on the one hand, and the great quatrain of the Doge's Palace on the other. To the modern there is nothing novel in such a treatment, but this was the great discovery of the Venetians that gave the peculiar brilliance to their colour, and of this method Tintoretto was by far the greatest exponent. The earlier masters had been in the habit of carefully mixing their tints till the result obtained was a flat colour, which, however brilliant in itself, cannot of course have anything like the carrying power and luminosity or apparent brilliance of broken colour.

One of the interesting questions with regard to Tintoretto's colour that yet remains to be settled, is whether he painted in distemper or oil-colour. At first sight there seems to be no ground for the distemper-theory, but in any case the varnish on the top. would make it very difficult to distinguish. Some, again, have suggested that the first part of the picture was painted in distemper, and that oil-colour was then painted over it. The theory gains some support from the peculiar way in which some of his colour has perished which, as distemper would be much more liable to injury from damp, is certainly possible. There is, too, in certain pictures, notably those in San Rocco and some of his ceiling pictures, a curious resemblance to fresco.

In one or two cases his pictures have been damaged, which would have given a clue, but the position and lighting of the pictures make it impossible for me to give any judgement from an examination of the torn edges. On the whole I should be inclined to say that if turpentine or other volatile oil was used by the Venetians at all, the results that have taken place are more likely to have arisen from a too free use of this medium, than from any medium mixed with water.

In comparing Robusti's colour with that of Titian or others of his predecessors, there is yet a most important factor to consider. There is in nearly all Robusti's work an element that is so subtle that it is apt to escape notice altogether, but is nevertheless perfectly obvious in most of his lower-toned pictures. Let us take for example such a picture as The Feast of Cana, now hanging in the Salute, which he originally painted for the Crociferi in 1561. It is not exactly a low-toned picture, but is that way inclined. It was a painting that pleased him sufficiently well for him to paint a replica of it, and it was considered of sufficient importance for a papal bull to be issued to prevent its removal when the monastery of the Crociferi was suppressed in 1657. It is therefore well worthy of consideration.

It is not an uncommon criticism to say, "Oh, anyone can paint a picture in a low key, or where the predominance of a single colour such as this rich golden brown before us is preserved throughout ; but to paint with the full contrast of blues and reds such as we find in the Titian in the church of the Frari, Venice, is another matter." But the criticism is generally hasty and ill-founded, for this hasty generalization really covers two totally different things. It is possible, on the one hand, to paint in monochrome, or to lessen the scale of the palette by keeping as nearly as possible to one or two colours, and no doubt such a scheme is comparatively easy to work. But, on the other hand, it is possible, despite the predominating colour, to preserve throughout an infinite scale of gradations of multitudinous colours, subordinating them to the whole, but without losing any. Perhaps a somewhat crude illustration may be used. Suppose that we take a given scene, and look at it so as to regard only the tones and not the colour. Then, if we set this down in red chalk, we have a monochrome. We may do this on a piece of greenish brown paper, and heighten the lights with bluish white chalk, so that we get a really pleasing colour effect, but although we have more than one colour the result is practically a monochrome, but it is a monochrome plus something else.

Supposing, on the other hand, that we take a piece of red glass, and look through that at the scene, and then set down what we see upon canvas. We shall see that we have lost nothing ; the infinite gradation is all there to the minutest degree, but it is there plus something else. In the latter case we have a superadded medium applied to the colour ; in the former we have the medium as it were by itself, or applied to form only.

But such would be but a poor explanation of the work of an artist like Tintoretto. No such mechanical device such as that of a red screen would give the least idea; for him the screen itself would be full of subtle changes of tone, of varying colour effect suggested by the strenuous workings of the mind. All the play of the original colour effect is there, nothing is missing ; and all the complexity of his superadded medium is there also. Perhaps the metaphor is not too strained if we say that we had before a melody, but now it is a harmony. To a certain extent such a treatment will always have a tendency towards lowness of tone, but it need be but slight. After all, the mellowness given by time is but the unintelligent application by nature of a similar treatment, and the beauty of that is often of the highest order.

Such an analysis set forth in words will doubtless seem bald and mechanical to the artist, and derogatory to Tintoretto. For with the artist the whole process is not so much a question of calculation as the unconscious, but necessary expression of his feeling.

Robusti's colour suggests many other interesting questions ; but enough has been said to give some idea of the number of ways in which it attains a higher level than that of his predecessors, and his power as a draughtsman falls to be considered. If it is hard to put into words the qualities of colour without doing the injustice of prosaic interpretation, how much harder is it to attempt the same thing with regard to the even more subtle distinctions of line.

We have not, as in the case of Michael Angelo, Raphael, or Leonardo, a mass of drawings from which we can judge of his draughtsmanship apart from his colour. Tintoretto was not fond of chalk or pen, and preferred to use the brush even for studies. We do, however, possess one or two drawings of his. They are, however, so exceedingly sketchy as to be of little use as a criterion. They have all been rather essays in composition than studies in drawing. The line is broken and the execution hasty. We here reproduce one, as it may prove interesting to show his method. The drawing is interesting as being a study for the composition in the National Gallery, London. It differs from the picture in making the whole scene a vision viewed by the figure below. It is even conceivable, although unlikely, that the present canvas extended downward, as the small figure below the goddess and to the left of her foot, is there cut off halfway. But there is no reason why the artist should not have changed his mind, nor is there any reason to doubt the authenticity of the drawing.

To judge of Robusti's drawing we must turn to his pictures, and although some of his drawing has never been surpassed, it must be confessed that the enormous speed at which he worked caused him in some cases to leave examples of thoroughly bad drawing, such as we only find in the sketch-books of other masters. Michael Angelo certainly offers plenty of examples of bad drawing in his sketches, but it is doubtful if Raphael or Leonardo ever perpetrated anything as bad as some of the drawing in Robusti's Nine Muses at Vienna.

Nevertheless, in spite of these freaks, for they can be called by no other name, his drawing is marked by extraordinary strength. He fully lived up to his self-chosen motto, and in strength his drawing in no way falls short of Michael Angelo. Moreover, he rarely, if ever, indulges in the exaggerations that often disfigure that master's work, partly from a natural severity of line, and partly because he seems to have revelled quite as much in the framework of the body as in its fleshy covering. His fondness, too, for difficult foreshortening seems to have led to a greater care and keener sight for the proportion of masses ; and although he may occasionally have indulged in a certain attenuation of figure, he never allowed the limbs to become unwieldy, as is the case sometimes in Michael Angelo. Although none of his work in the round has come down to us, for he never seems to have done anything in durable material, he too was a great master of modelling, and doubtless this helped to intensify his power of representing the subtle-ties of modelling on canvas. In this respect he was entirely without a peer, and a few of his works stand apart as unique in this respect in the history of Art.

The feeling of Tintoretto's line cannot fairly be ex-pressed in words. It has a magnificent sweep combined with a refined precision and tender appreciation that at its best surpasses Michael Angelo's at his best. But at the same time it does not perhaps ever quite attain the delicacy and grace of Raphael's highest achievements, as that master in his turn, perhaps, never quite reached the robustness of Michael Angelo or Tintoretto. In fine, Tintoretto at his highest is unequalled, but he certainly was more uneven than most of the very greatest artists.

In the matter of composition the earlier masters were as children, and we find them less able to make a satisfactory composition with five or six figures than Tintoretto with fifty or sixty. Stiffness, want of balance, lack of concentration, conventionality, are words that find no place in the vocabulary of one who would criticise the compositions of this prince in the art. The class which might be called " donor pictures," containing portraits of donors or officials must be left out of account, as, whether from modesty or the reverse, these not always beautiful individuals did not care to become too integral a part of the composition. Some of them, how-ever, contain magnificent individual figures ; the full-length figure of the angel in the Resurrection with Three Senators, in the Doge's Palace, is one to haunt the beholder for days. Tintoretto's mighty canvases speak for themselves, and he did what no other artist, not even Paolo Veronese, has been able to do before or since. No doubt Paolo Veronese was a consummate master of composition, but his compositions have far less variety, and are apt to follow one or two particular schemes.

As a tour de force in composition, Robusti's Paradise stands by itself. It cannot be considered as his most satisfactory composition, yet a picture that contains several hundred figures, and that still preserves a sense of unity and pleasing balance and relation, must at least be considered as absolute proof that its creator was more than master of his art.

We have more than once had to consider the question of inspiration as it affects the colour, drawing, composition, and yet more the whole conception in a work of art. It may be well, therefore, to obtain a side-light upon this subject at the close of this chapter from Tintoretto himself.

In the year 1561, the same as that in which he painted The Supper at Cana, Cardinal Gonzaga asked him to paint a small representation of a Turkish battle. The picture was completed in the following year, but Tintoretto said to the cardinal : " I could wish very much that your illustrious highness had appointed me some-thing that corresponds more to my style of work than such small figures ; nevertheless, you will graciously accept my good intention ; and if I have employed too long time on this commission the blame must be laid upon the difficulty of the work." It is the more interesting, as we have some reason to suppose that at the same time he executed a small work with little figures that we still possess. In the possession of the Earl of Wemyss there is a picture which is apparently a study for The Supper at Cana. It is rather a slight effort, and does not resemble the picture in any marked degree, but is not improbably a first sketch of the idea. The effect of the small size upon the drawing of the figures is quite remarkable. The drawing is positively bad, and yet at the same time it is so much like the style of the master as to be a sort of horrible caricature. There are, how-ever, examples by him of small figures which are magnificent, such as the St. George in the National Gallery, London. This, however, merely emphasizes the point that where the inspiration is wanting the work can only suffer.

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