There is a freshness about the portraits in the small and beautiful exhibition of Tintoretto’s paintings and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that speaks to what appears to be the artist’s great joy in making them. Many of the paintings exhibited in “Celebrating Tintoretto: Portrait Paintings and Studio Drawings,” in the museum’s Robert Lehman Wing through January 27, 2019, are modest in size, but they are as penetrating and beautiful as his larger portraits and even the giant paintings for which he is so admired.
At first glance one could mistake these small works for studies, perhaps for the larger versions of the same subjects that are also in this exhibition. And in some cases, they may well be. But I believe that at least several of them were painted after the bigger commissioned pieces, and all of these paintings hold court as completed works of their own.
Tintoretto clearly enjoyed making these small portraits, as if the circumspection of their relatively small size—as well as the conventions of portrait painting which to some extent even Tintoretto had to follow—served paradoxically to free him rather than restrict him in any meaningful way. I wonder if these paintings were a relief from the giant tableaux and all their concomitant labors. Tintoretto’s focus on detail in the smaller works, which required him to bear down to paint what was actually in front of him, as counterintuitive as it may seem, seems to have freed him from the strains and demands of imaginative, grand-scale composition.
Sometimes it is easier to simply paint what one sees. What a relief it must have been for Tintoretto to be forced to focus on something actual! What freedom in the attempt at exactitude! What joy in the luxury of small brushes and in indulging in the extra time he had in making these small paintings, and in focusing on the kind of detail that gets drowned out in the heroic gestalt of his large works! It seems that what would have constrained most artists was liberating to Tintoretto—rendering the moisture in the corner of an eye, for instance, or scrutinizing the individuality of his sitters’ hairs and beards.
Sometimes it is easier to simply paint what one sees.
In these small paintings, Tintoretto allows himself the gift of time. The portraits look as if they took as long to paint as a painting of five by eight feet. This fierce patience and steady concentration endows the paintings with the kinds of small-brush detailing that one sometimes misses in his larger works.
Tintoretto was a great portrait painter—something that became clear to me for the first time in this exhibition. I have even come to believe that it was Tintoretto and not Titian who so greatly influenced the Northern painters of the next century—artists such as Rembrandt and Hals, and even Vermeer.
To my eyes, Tintoretto’s portraits make Titian’s feel cold. Tintoretto’s are filled with humanity and insight, perhaps even a sort of sympathetic and empathetic forgiveness, which I do not find in his fellow Venetian’s portraits. These portraits are insightful in the way that Rembrandt’s were at the end of his life, his brush handling filled with the bravado one associates with Hals. These are personal paintings, both to the sitter and the artist. If you want to know where the early Rubens comes from, see this exhibition.
Though I am sure that many of the paintings here at the Met were created on commission, as most of Tintoretto’s larger paintings were, it seems to me that he also painted these portraits for fun. There is a sense of relief from the problems of imagination and from the mental and physical effort it took to make his wall-sized works. One senses that these small portraits were easier for Tintoretto to make, and in their making they provide us with what had heretofore—for me at least—been an unknown side of his personality.
This exhibition, curated by Jayne Wrightsman and Alison Manges Nogueira, should not be missed, and somehow it makes a great deal of sense juxtaposed to the stupendous collection of Delacroix paintings and drawings exhibited concurrently at the Met.1