Photo credit: The National Gallery, London
(b Castelfranco [now Castelfranco Veneto], c.1477; d Venice, Oct. 1510). Venetian painter. Almost nothing is known of his life and only a handful of paintings can be confidently attributed to him, but he holds a momentous place in the history of art. He had achieved legendary status soon after his early death (evidently from plague) and through succeeding centuries he has continued to excite the imagination in a way that few other painters can match. The extraordinary discrepancy between his enormous fame and the tiny size of his oeuvre is explained by the fact that he initiated a new conception of painting. He was one of the earliest artists to specialize in cabinet pictures for private collectors rather than works for public or ecclesiastical patrons, and he was the first painter who subordinated subject matter to the evocation of mood—it is clear that his contemporaries sometimes did not know what was represented in his pictures.
Vasari, who says that Giorgione earned his nickname—meaning ‘Big George’—‘because of his physical appearance and his moral and intellectual stature’, ranked him alongside Leonardo as one of the founders of ‘modern’ painting.Giorgione's home town is about 40 km (25 miles) north-west of Venice, where as far as is known he spent all his career. According to Vasari he trained with Giovanni Bellini (although it has also been suggested that Carpaccio may have been his teacher). He had two important public commissions in Venice: in 1507–8 he painted a canvas (now lost without trace) for the audience chamber of the Doges' Palace; and in 1508 (together with Titian) he painted frescos on the exterior of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the German warehouse), now known only through engravings and ruinous fragments. The only other certain contemporary documentation on any of his surviving paintings is an inscription on the back of a female portrait known as Laura (KH Mus., Vienna), which says it was painted by ‘Master Zorzi da Castelfranco’ in 1506; it also records that Giorgione was a colleague of Vincenzo Catena, a partnership about which nothing else is known. (An inscription on Portrait of a Man in the San Diego Museum of Art is more doubtful.) The main document for reconstructing Giorgione's oeuvre is a series of notes by the Venetian collector and connoisseur Marcantonio Michiel (c.1484–1552), written intermittently between 1521 and 1543. Michiel, who is a scrupulous and reliable source, mentions a number of paintings by Giorgione, four or five of which can be plausibly identified with extant works: The Tempest (Accademia, Venice), The Three Philosophers (KH Mus.), Sleeping Venus (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), Boy with an Arrow (a copy?, KH Mus.), and (an oblique and less explicit reference than the others) Christ Carrying the Cross (S. Rocco, Venice). Michiel says that The Three Philosophers was finished by Sebastiano del Piombo and that the Sleeping Venus (the work that founded the tradition of the reclining female nude) was finished by Titian. The problem of attribution was, then, complicated from the start by the fact that some of Giorgione's paintings were completed after his death by other hands, and confusion soon arose: in the first edition of his Lives (1550) Vasari attributed the S. Rocco Christ to Giorgione, but in the second edition (1568) he gave it in one place to Giorgione and in another to Titian, even though ‘many people believed it was by Giorgione’. Distinguishing between the work of Giorgione and the young Titian continues to be one of the knottiest problems in connoisseurship, the celebrated Concert Champêtre in the Louvre being the picture most hotly disputed between them.Among the other paintings given to Giorgione are the Castelfranco Madonna, in the cathedral of his home town (first mentioned by Ridolfi in 1648 and accepted by almost all critics), and several male portraits, including a self-portrait in the Herzog-Anton-Ulrich Museum in Brunswick (perhaps a copy). Giorgione is said to have been handsome and amorous, and he initiated a type of dreamily romantic portrait that became immensely popular in Venice. The powerful influence that his work exerted in the generation after his death (even the venerable Bellini succumbed to it) is one of the main factors in making the construction of a catalogue of his work so difficult, for there are scores of paintings of the period, particularly pastoral landscapes, that can be described as Giorgionesque, and many are of high quality. The problems of iconography that Giorgione's paintings present are sometimes every bit as difficult as those of attribution. The most famous instance is The Tempest, one of his most enigmatic and poetic creations. Michiel saw it in 1530 and described it as a ‘little landscape with the tempest with the gipsy and soldier’, so he evidently did not know what subject, if any, was represented. X-rays have shown that Giorgione radically altered the figures in a way that suggests he was here indulging his imagination rather than illustrating a particular theme, although many ingenious attempts have been made to unravel a subject. This creation of the ‘landscape of mood’, in which he used colour and atmosphere with great subtlety, was his most momentous contribution to the history of art—an innovation of great originality and influence. Apart from the artists already mentioned, Palma Vecchio and Dosso Dossi were among the contemporaries who fell under Giorgione's spell, and among later artists Watteau was his most sensitive heir.
Text source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)