(Born Venice, ?1518; died Venice, 31 May 1594). Venetian painter. His nickname derives from his father's profession of cloth dyer (tintore). He ranks second only to Titian among the Venetian painters of his time and had a prolific and successful career. Whereas most of Titian's later paintings were done for foreign patrons, Tintoretto worked mainly for Venetian clients and in particular was the dominant figure in supplying religious pictures for the city's churches and charitable institutions; he is only once recorded outside Venice (when he visited Mantua in 1580 in connection with a commission from the Gonzaga family) and the bulk of his work remains in the buildings for which it was painted.
His greatest works are the vast series of paintings he produced between 1564 and 1587 for the Scuola di S. Rocco, the wealthiest of the Venetian scuole (literally schools), charitable institutions that performed such functions as caring for orphans and the sick. Tintoretto began his long association with S. Rocco with the most famous episode in his career, when in 1564 he won the competition for the initial commission—a ceiling painting of St Roch in Glory—by somehow managing to install a full-sized picture whilst his rivals merely produced the specified sketches (he was renowned for the speed at which he worked). This clever ruse was regarded by some as underhand tactics and Tintoretto was evidently willing to undercut competitors' prices and even to work without pay if it helped to gain him the commissions he wanted. Unlike Titian, he seems to have been unconcerned with money as an end in itself, and his religious paintings are the expression of a deeply devout nature. In S. Rocco he created one of the greatest of all interpretations of the Christian story. The work was carried out in three phases: first he decorated the albergo (committee room) with scenes of Christ's Passion (1565–7); this was followed by the great hall (1575–81), which has Old Testament scenes on the ceiling and New Testament scenes on the wall; and finally came the lower hall (1583–7), which has scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary and the Nativity of Christ. There is an extraordinary range and depth of feeling in these paintings, from the cosmic drama of the Crucifixion (1565) to the tender intimacy of the Nativity scenes. Henry James wrote that ‘We shall scarcely find four walls elsewhere that enclose within a like area an equal quantity of genius’, and said of the stupendous Crucifixion: ‘Surely no single picture in the world contains more of human life; there is everything in it, including the most exquisite beauty.’
In addition to his religious works, Tintoretto painted numerous portraits and occasional mythological scenes (Origin of the Milky Way, c.1575–80, NG, London). Although portraiture was never central to his activity, he was the best Venetian portraitist of his time apart from Titian and was particularly good at depicting old men, showing the dignity and weariness of age (a self-portrait of c.1590 is in the Louvre, Paris). In his later work particularly he must have used a good deal of studio help: his son Domenico (c.1560–1635) became his foreman, and another son, Marco (1561–1637), and a daughter, Marietta (c.1554–90), were among his other assistants. However, he showed no diminution of powers in old age, and his career ended with one of his greatest masterpieces, the Last Supper (1592–4, S. Giorgio Maggiore, Venice), a scene of incandescent spirituality.
Tintoretto had considerable influence, most notably on El Greco, who absorbed the visionary energy and intensity of his work. He continued to be a respected figure in Venice throughout the 17th century, but his reputation was lower elsewhere, and in the rational climate of the 18th century his work tended to be dismissed for an alleged lack of intellectual control (even in his lifetime Vasari had admired his powerful imagination but lamented his ‘haphazard’ design and indifference to traditional ideals of finish). In the age of Romanticism, however, his intense individuality brought him back into favour. No one played a more important role in his rehabilitation than Ruskin, whose first encounter with the Scuola di S. Rocco in 1843 left him ‘perfectly prostrated’. See also Veronese.
Text source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)