A study of “Madonna and Child” and Tintoretto’s influence on modern Art
Madonna and Child (Fig 0) is an oil on canvas painting by Jacopo Robusti, (Tintoretto) from 1570–72 that can be viewed in the permanent collection of the Legion of Honor Museum of San Francisco. Tintoretto was a prominent Venetian Renaissance Master and Madonna and Child is a perfect illustration of his talent, his particular sensitivity, innovative style, and technique. Some aspects of Tintoretto’s life and work remain a mystery for scholars and are at the heart of numerous past and current debates. Many paintings originally attributed to him are now challenged by contemporary critics. In contrary, curators like Roland Krischel just announced in March 2018 during the Paris Exhibit dedicated to Tintoretto’s early carrier, Tintoret. Naissance d’un génie that some work that was attributed to others are now believed to be his. Some inconsistence in quality led some to think that parts of certain paintings could be attributed to his numerous assistants. Renaissance critics like Giorgio Vasari were exasperated by his radical lack of finish “non-finito” and his irreverent attitude towards the established art canons of the time. However, his incommensurable energy, his blazing bravura brushstrokes, free handling of paint, his unique treatment of light and the new emotion his work conveys will influence and move major painters and art movements for the centuries to come. For Baroque painter Rubens, Romantic Delacroix, Impressionists and Cubist Picasso and even French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, Tintoretto opened the path to modernism. Tintoretto’s capacity for innovation and groundbreaking new approach were born from his own fiery personality and immeasurable ambition, his years of formation and social status, his rivalry with contemporary masters Titian, Veronese, and the political and social changes in Italy at the time. He is celebrated as one of the last geniuses of the prolific period of the Italian Renaissance, yet he broke many of the rules his predecessors established.
It is near impossible to discuss Tintoretto’s life and work without examining the tremendous influence of his older rival Titian, though scholars are not in agreement with the actual nature of the influence itself. When Tintoretto was only a teenager, Titian was the indisputable master of Venice and leader of the Venetian Renaissance. He was the artistic authority, internationally admired and respected. And, thanks to earlier High Renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, painters were now perceived as true geniuses (not merely artisans). Humanists scholars and patrons adopted Plato’s views on artists’ creations being guided by Muses, instruments of the Divine. Tintoretto’s father recognized his son’s talent and brought him to Titian’s workshop. According to the legend, young Tintoretto stayed only for few days and was rejected by Titian. Some believe that the older master recognized immediately Tintoretto’s gift and got jealous; others believe that Tintoretto’s style and attitude was such a departure from Titian’s that he would have not been able to work within the Master’s style. Finally, others think that Tintoretto himself decided to quit not enjoying the studio’s discipline. The reasons for his departure remain unknown but what seems certain is that this episode had a tremendous impact on the artist. It seems that Tintoretto while admiring Titian (especially his handling of color) will spend his lifetime to enfranchise himself from him. According to Tom Nichols, he sought early on to identify himself less with the sensual naturalism of Titian than with the intellectual and sculptural values of central Italy. Nichols also suggests that Titian’s disdain may have been enough to delay his breakthrough with higher ranking Venetian patrons. Titian even intervened in some competitions in order to exclude Tintoretto, and mediated in favor of his protégé Veronese. It was indeed the case in 1560, when Veronese painted the philosophers Plato and Aristotle for the library of San Marco while Tintoretto was barred from participating. But Tintoretto became quickly a fierce competitor to reckon with: Titian would work very slowly, making his patrons lavishly spend huge amounts of money in order to obtain a “Titian”. In contrary, Tintoretto would work quickly and ask his patrons to pay whatever they wanted or nothing, making him a serious threat to Titian’s business.
The difference between Tintoretto’s esthetic approach and Titian’s is very evident in particular paintings like The Last Supper (Fig 1.). While Titian’s depiction of the subject (Fig 2) is very classical, not dissimilar to the one’s of Leonardo da Vinci, with a very balanced composition; Tintoretto “translated the scene from the abstract classicized environment preferred by Titian into a believable “earthly” space.”. Tintoretto breaks through the Renaissance classical rules by creating deeper emotions, portraying religious saints more connected to the common people, playing with new points of view and modifying the composition from the classical pyramid to a complex and asymmetrical composition using intense diagonals and light to create drama. In the Last Supper, he uses elements of the artisan’s life and give the Apostles the look of Venetian townsmen of the lower class. The effect is striking as the scene depicted is infused with passion and drama and the viewer at the time would relate to the protagonists in a deeper manner than to previous detached religious subjects of the early Renaissance.
While young artists and newcomers such as Veronese, paid homage to Titian, showing respect and deference to the older Master, Tintoretto was aggressively defying him in paintings like the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. Tintoretto seems to deliberately use some of Titian’s favored gold and red color palette to call for the Master’s attention but then introduces a dramatic twist in his composition to boldly provoke Titian and to demonstrate the limits of his reach. “In contrast to the static, self-contained horizontality of Titian’s composition, Tintoretto constructs an image of vertiginous verticality, realized through the use of a plunging dal sotto in su perspective which violently pulls the viewer into the picture space.”
One of the reasons why Tintoretto tended to make his paintings much more “participative” and intimate than the previous Renaissance Italian masters might be due to the Catholic Counter-Reformation that began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563). The Catholic church is then attempting to “counter-reform” the Protestant faith initiated by Martin Luther who declared (with reasons) Catholics to be corrupted. As a result, the new Catholic order aims at demonstrating that it is now fully focusing on the devotional life and on a personal relationship with Christ. The Catholic religion is no longer depicted as an exclusive heavenly matter with detached enthroned Madonna’s but with saints portrayed down to earth and close to the people. Paintings are highlighting the human character of Christ and his suffering to create compassion and emotion. The religious reform also afforded the poor a new profile within Venetian culture and Tintoretto definitely felt compelled to depict the notion of sacred poverty in his work. He viewed himself as the modest “little dyer” (he was the son of a cloth dyer “tintori” from which his name derived) in contrast with the powerful high-ranking figure of Titian. He identified himself with the Venice lower class and famously worked for free or to simply cover his material cost and did not appreciate money.
Another strong influence on Venetian artists at the time were the powerful “Scuole”, religious associations governed by lay officials; their purpose was to offer assistance both spiritual and material, to their members. These influential and wealthy brotherhoods spread widely in mid-sixteenth century and their members came from all social classes. Via competitions, the Scuole were helping artists to emerge, and their vast halls were ideal spaces for “grande machine” canvases such as the ones Tintoretto was a master at producing.
But the combination of strong criticism from his contemporary critics (Giorgio Vasari judged that Tintoretto’s activities had made a “joke of art”) in addition to the rejection at an early age from Titian had grave consequences on Tintoretto’s professional career. It indeed threatened “to make him a kind of artistic orphan in his own city”. Tintoretto would struggle to win commissions from patrons and powerful Scuole and impose himself as a true Master. However, Titian’s disdain did not affect his tremendous ambition and may even have fueled his thirst for success. In order to break through these obstacles, Tintoretto resorted in 1560 to execute two paintings for the Madonna Dell’Orto church for free to secure the bid. Again, in 1564, to win the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco commission, he surprised everyone competing by presenting a finished painting and positioned the canvas in its intended place while other contenders (including Veronese) presented merely sketches of their project. While these daring tactics created an uproar from his fellow competitors and from the commissioners who were scandalously claiming the stratagem illegal; they had no choice but to accept his work presented as a donation (the Scuole could not refuse a gift to its saint). Tintoretto succeeded with the help of some Scuole brothers sympathetic to his cause, and his case would have been helped by the fact that as many as 25 per cent of the brothers were cloth dyers like his father. In 1565, he was finally admitted to the confraternity and became the official painter of San Rocco where he worked for over twenty years (1564–1588) and painted more than sixty canvases. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that this work is Venice’s equivalent to Rome’s Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. His most renowned works are to be found in the Sala dell’Albergo and the Sala Superiore. All the works in the building are by him, or his assistants, including his son Domenico.
Madonna and Child may have been painted at the same time for the Scuole and may be an inspiration for a later painting. Indeed, the Madonna’s facial traits, her veil, garment, and the presence of wheat in Madonna and Child present similarities with the ones of the Madonna depicted in The Adoration of the Shepherds painting (Fig 3) displayed on the east wall of the chapter room in the Scuola San Rocco and is dated 1578 so about eight years later. The Scuole also had an important impact on Tintoretto’s personal life, as in 1550 he married Faustina de Vescovi, daughter of a Venetian nobleman who was the Guardian Grande of the Scuola Grande di San Marco.
The early rejection from the local establishment may also have influenced Tintoretto to look elsewhere for inspiration and compelled him to reject the Venetian tradition itself.
It is known that Tintoretto did not travel much during his lifetime but nevertheless, early on, he was exposed to art imported into Venice and started to collect small copies of casts done after Michelangelo’s work. He was fascinated by the muscular splendor and plasticity of the Master’s sculptures and made frequent references to Michelangelo in his fresco work (Tintoretto was the most prolific painter of façade frescoes in mid-cinquecento Venice). He owned numerous casts including one of the Belvedere torso from antiquity, which Tintoretto studied intensively and practiced form and foreshortening. “The illusion of plasticity was what Tintoretto sought. He was no longer content with the traditional two-dimensional style of the Venetian school; he wanted the effect of the full round Figure”
In Madonna and Child, these multiple influences come to life. It is the delicateness of the young sitter that first strikes the viewer. A far cry from previous sacred representations of the Virgin and Christ, the young Madonna depicted seems to be very fragile almost adolescent (the halo around her head barely visible) she could be any young mother entertaining her baby in a very intimate moment. The viewer can immediately relate to her, feel the emotion, the simple tenderness and immeasurable love between a mother and her baby. The Madonna is monumental, her full body is in the foreground and creates a strong vertiginous diagonal on the entire picture plane with her head located at the upper right of the canvas and her feet placed at the lower left end of the canvas. She is casually seated on a stack of hay, her upper body reclined towards her baby resting near her on her scattered dress, she has placed her left arm around his body as if to prevent him from falling and to keep him secure and warm. Her body is elongated in the Mannerist style and is twisted in a curvilinear “figura serpentinata” position. Where High Renaissance art emphasized proportion, balance, and ideal beauty, Mannerism exaggerates such qualities, often resulting in compositions that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant. Her delicate fingers are holding gracefully thin strings of hay which she agitates in front of her baby’s eyes to entertain him. She is casually playing with him like any mother would do to sooth an infant, to stimulate and to create a motherly bond.
The baby’s blue eyes are attentively gazing at the makeshift toy, he has round rosy cheeks, curly blond hair and a beautiful foreshortened nude body. His very muscular and plump figure is not without reminding the viewer of a cherub, a little cupid or Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges sculpture (fig 4) or even the Sleeping Cupid of antiquity that Michelangelo copied (Fig 5). The beautiful rendering of his skin through the use of chiaroscuro and the delicate porcelain white color of his flesh will definitely influence Rubens and Rococo artists later in the 18th century in their depiction of cupid.
Tintoretto’s rendering of the Madonna’s veil on her hair and shoulder is a testimony to his talent. Through the use of chiaroscuro and light painterly brushstrokes, Tintoretto conveys the delicateness of its texture, the transparency and shine of the fabric over her dark hair. Her bright red dress comes through the silky fabric in a light pink desaturated shade. The veil’s folds are rendered by curvilinear brushstrokes and stronger gold impasto application of paint reflects the light. The delicacy and minutia used to render the veil contrast vividly with the “non-finite” rough rendering of the sun behind her.
While the baby Jesus is happily entertained by his mother, his right fingers have absently reached for one of the Madonna’s index fingers. This gesture is incredibly moving and tender and again confers a more human dimension to the religious scene. The mother and her child are placed in a dark indoor setting, the wall immediately behind her is a neutral flat dark brown color that makes her bright glowing figure stand out and rise towards the viewer. The gold wheat, both figures are resting on, is scattered around their bodies rendered with billions of quick brushstrokes creating what seems like a gushing river around them.
The Early Renaissance artists greatest achievement was the invention of perspective, the ability to create three dimension and depth within a two-dimensional canvas. It seems that Tintoretto decided to challenge, once again, this established order in this painting. Indeed, the effect on the hay creates a distorted perspective and an instable composition as it is complex to understand how the figures are actually seated on the hay. It is, as if the baby Jesus would fall and be taken away by the river of wheat if the Madonna was not holding on to him. This intensive play on the hay creates movement and is dramatically contrasting with the peaceful mood and the tender relationship between mother and child. It is as if Tintoretto is pulling and pushing the viewer in opposite directions and wanted to create tension. Tintoretto is able to infuse the viewer with a tender emotion, and at the same time, ignites a sense of violent chaos. The use of multiple viewpoints creates confusion; the technique is new and won’t be celebrated until much later in the 19th century by Paul Cezanne and 20th century by Post-Impressionists and Cubists like Pablo Picasso. The gush of wheat is taking its source on the upper left of the canvas and flows down under the Virgin towards the bottom right of the canvas, intersecting with the other diagonal created by her figure.
Apart from the immediate intimate scene, the only other architectural element in the room is a window in the left middle ground. The window pane is bare and is just a rectangular hole in the wall behind the Virgin. It opens the scene to a beautiful green and blue landscape with a magnificent rising sun in the hilly horizon with a small Roman structure at its top. The striking sun is very interesting as Tintoretto applied distinctive bravura strokes of paint to render the rays of light with multiple colors without blending them or nuancing them. Very much like the impressionists like Monet later would introduce the color theories by placing two colors side by side and allowing the eye of the viewer to mix them. This technique is unheard of by Venetians when Tintoretto uses it and highly criticized it as “unfinished”. The rising sun could symbolize the birth of Jesus. The beauty of the distant landscape is also rendered by Tintoretto’s use of sfumato, a technique introduced by High Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci; it creates a hazy atmospheric dreamlike effect on the nature. Tintoretto also creates depth by alternating light and shadow to pull the eye of the viewer towards the vanishing point which is the sun. The magnificent sun then literally explodes pushing its rays of light back towards the viewer. Tintoretto is also using diminutive perspective, the Madonna is monumental in the foreground while the sun, the distant Roman building and the trees are receding into space. Finally, Tintoretto uses also colors to create depth, in particular the yellow gold that is used on the foreground figures and wheat, leads the eye to the yellow of the sun in the background. Tintoretto is also contrasting the colors much more than the High Renaissance painters; the red of the Madonna’s dress is highly saturated and is brightly standing out towards the viewer; warm colors tend to appear closer than cooler colors. In color theories, the use of two primary colors side by side intensifies each other; Tintoretto applies red and blue next to each other in her garment as well as blue (sky) and yellow (sun) in the landscape to obtain the brightening effect and color intensity. The same effect is achieved by using two secondary colors side by side which is the case with the orange in the sun juxtaposed to the green of the nature in the background. Color theories will be a major aspect of the Impressionists style of the 19th century even though some principles first appeared in the writings of Leone Alberti (1435) and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1490), Tintoretto may have been aware of them.
One of Tintoretto’s greatest achievements and what he remains the most famous for, is his treatment of light. Venetian painters of the Renaissance were particularly affected by the beauty of light and its reflection on the canals of their picturesque city. They developed particular skills in depicting atmospheric effects and prompted scholars to label them as colorists, but Tintoretto started to utilize light to new heights. Indeed, he increased dramatically the contrast between light and shadow and created a new style which will be known later in the Baroque period as tenebrism. Not only does this new technique create drama, but it also creates intense movement. In the Madonna and Child, Tintoretto uses multiple light sources from opposite directions to emphasize the pull and push movement. One source of light comes from the distant sun in the background landscape. It has the softness of hopeful mornings and pushes vigorously towards the viewer using the strong diagonals of the landscape.
The second source of light comes from the opposite side and is invisible to the viewer; one can only guess the presence of a large fire next to the Madonna on the foreground right side of the canvas. By placing the light of the fire directly into the viewer’s space, Tintoretto is making the scene intimate and very participative; the viewer becomes an involuntary protagonist of the painting. The presence of the invisible fire is only revealed by the strong light and shadows it casts on the two figures.
The Madonna’s face is incredibly luminescent, almost translucent, and the shine on her nose and forehead evokes the appearance of sweat which betrays the vigorousness and close proximity of the fire. The warmth of the fire is also implied by the pinky cheeks on both figures, and its light is reflected in the gold texture of the wheat, the baby’s hair and on her fingernails. The texture of her dress and her skin are almost iridescent and glow against the dark hue of the background. The folds of her garment are picking up light and alternating with strong shadows. Tintoretto uses orange impasto strokes of paint on her red garment to emphasize the light effect on her red dress. The light is creating this warm mood of intimacy and peaceful rest.
Venice had been prosperous thanks to its commercial skills and strategic location but also thanks to a stable government. It was a Republic governed by an elected doge (preventing a dynasty situation like in Florence); State and Religion were separated which was not the case in the rest of the peninsula. But the once wealthy city, famous for its trades, beautiful fabrics and lavish parties was now under many threats. The Turks who took Constantinople in 1453 were a menace for Venice, which lost Chypre, and in 1527 the sack of Rome by Charles Quint affected the idealized Renaissance style and influences of the humanist values and theories. This period of economic and religious uncertainty was affecting art and the Catholic Church was now promoting sacrifice and devoutness; suffering becomes visible in art.
The challenges the city of Venice faces fond echo in Madonna and Child. While initially the Virgin seems to gaze at her baby with a slight smile on her lips; a closer inspection reveals that her gaze is actually lost and that she is in deep contemplation. She appears fragile, worried, even sad.
Wheat scattered upon the ground in painting symbolizes a wasted life or future. Mary knows what her baby’s great destiny is and the suffering he will have to endure; and Tintoretto magnificently renders these emotions in her face. The wheat could also refer to the sharing of the bread and the Eucharist. This painting is about the prophetic life of baby Jesus and the strong perspective on the canvas takes the viewer from Jesus’s birth to the culminating point of his life symbolized by the Roman temple. Another Tintoretto’s contribution to the Renaissance is his ability to create drama. The impossible predicament in which Mary finds herself in is almost unbearable to watch. These desperate emotions one can feel in front of the painting are reinforced by the fact that Mary seems so young and too fragile to bare such a burden. Tintoretto creates here a psychological dichotomy: the cruel situation Mary faces juxtaposed to the beauty of the overall painting itself trigger immense compassion from the viewer.
One may wonder why she is alone in this precarious position as it was very uncommon to see the Virgin represented in art without other biblical saints surrounding her at the time. She seems to have escaped a danger and found refuge in this modest stable which would be the case in The Flight into Egypt. A popular theme in the art of the Counter Reformation, The Flight into Egypt was, in fact, the invention of Christian mythologists who were eager to expand on the few references to Jesus’ early life. Art was to inspire piety and a profound religious feeling. In this biblical episode, closely after the birth of Jesus and the visit by the Magi in Jerusalem, an angel appeared to Joseph and informed him that King Herod, learning of the birth of the “king of the Jews”, ordered the murder of all infants in order to maintain his own position on the throne. Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt to save their son. However, in previous depictions of The Flight into Egypt, Mary is never alone, always depicted with Joseph, often leading her seated with Jesus on a donkey.
The setting of Madonna and Child could also recall another biblical event: The Nativity; but again, in this episode of the Bible, the Madonna and her child are traditionally depicted with Joseph, shepherds, animals and magi. This new approach of portraying the Madonna and Child alone in an intimate setting is a big departure and seems very modern. Tintoretto seems to have omitted the presence of other saints to create a sense of intimacy reinforced by the cropping of the fire and the proximity of the Madonna to the viewer. Elements of the scene being placed in the viewer’s space may even suggests to the viewer that he or she is personifying Joseph himself. The viewer then becomes part of the scene, tenderly observing his wife and child in the early morning by the fire sharing her concerns and hopes for their son. At the same time, the beauty of the rising sun seems to bring hope. The Madonna seems to be caught between two forces and two lights: hope and fear. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that she is so close to the viewer, it is a claustrophobic scene, and the only escape for the eye is the sunrise behind her.
The way Tintoretto creates this intimate setting is new, it will later influence the Dutch genre painting from the upcoming Baroque style of the seventeenths century. Major artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt will depict everyday scenes of life in a very similar manner and will celebrate tenebrism by using strong contrast of light and shadow to create drama in their paintings. Caravaggio’s famous use of diagonal light from nearby windows will become a style of its own. Another crucial Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens would also be tremendously seduced by Tintoretto’s painterly brushstrokes and fiercely collected his work. Scholars believe that Rubens found inspiration in Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (Fig 7) to execute his Elevation of the cross (Fig 6) and render the handling of masses, the contrast of light and shadows, and the elevation of the body on the cross (1610–11). The Spanish painter Velasquez while visiting Venice in 1605 copied two of Tintoretto’s painting that he offered to King Philippe IV.
It will take years for the Venetians and later the rest of the world to recognize Tintoretto’s genius when he himself knew at a young age his own value. He set his eyes early on the best masters the Renaissance had to offer and never stopped experimenting, producing a gigantic amount of work in great sizes. He found consecration at the end of his career at 70 years old with his last masterpiece the Paradise known as one of the largest oil on canvas paintings in the world for the Doge Palace in Venice; it measures 74 x 30 feet (Fig 8). Tintoretto’s ground breaking innovative technique and capacity to lead his audience from pure delight to profound sadness is revealed in Madonna and Child. The Baroque painters will admire his handling of light; the Romantics will borrow his drama and movement; the Impressionists his brushstrokes and finally the Cubists his unique compositions. Ultimately, the title of the current Parisian exhibition celebrating his early carrier “Tintoretto: Birth of a Genius” demonstrates his irrefutable legacy today and his contribution to the Italian Renaissance no longer need to be challenged.
 Presentation of the Tintoretto exhibition in Paris conference “Birth of a genius” Roland Krischel, Michel Hochmann and Cecile Maisonneuve. March 2018.
 Tintoretto tradition and identity, by Tom Nichols (loc 656)
Tintoretto tradition and identity, by Tom Nichols (loc 733)
 Tintoretto tradition and identity, by Tom Nichols, (loc 865)
 Masters of Venice, Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power, by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Lynn Federle Orr. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (p119)
 Tintoretto tradition and identity, by Tom Nichols (loc 803)
 Tintoretto tradition and identity, by Tom Nichols (loc 830)
 Tintoretto tradition and identity, by Tom Nichols (loc 99)
 A study by Tintoretto after Michelangelo, by Claus Virch, Assistant Department of Paintings (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
 Tintoret et la fureur de peindre: du manierisme veninitien aux premisses du baroque (artistes t. 57) by Eliane Reynold de Seresin et Elisabeth Bruyns (loc 307)