This is the third part of my look at some of the Tintoretto works included in the Prado retrospective which just closed. Read part I, which includes an introduction and general remarks about the exhibition, here, and part II here.

One of the worthy subsidiary objectives of curator Miguel Falomir for the exhibition seems to have been the rehabilitation of Tintoretto as a portraitist. His portraiture has traditionally been disparaged by scholars and amateurs alike, and not always entirely justly. Sharing the stage with one of the greatest portraitists of all, Titian, has of course not made things easier, as portraiture remains the one genre in which he never succeeded in exorcising the dominance of the older paragon and providing a fully convincing alternative. One problem is probably that the portrait by nature did not offer Tintoretto as much of a venue in which to exercise his gift for dramatic mise-en-scène and that his efforts in portraiture are therefore measured more according to its psychological insight and quality of execution.

In terms of the latter, Tintoretto is definitely more impressive when he has a large canvas to unleash on. The smaller scale of his portraits still provide ample ground for billowing waves of facial hair, as seen in the marvelous early Self-portrait (c. 1546-7), and dashing highlights along the sleeves of such sitters as the Washington Procurator of St. Mark’s (c. 1570), and the animation of posture so central to his figure compositions is often retained to an extent in the portraits, many of which are characterized by sitters in mid-speech, -gesture or -motion. However, in terms of sheer sensual pleasure, of the lingering joy of painterly texture, his portraits are a far cry from a Titian or a Veronese’s.

Concerning the former, however, his best portraits do evince a unique sensibility that it would be a shame to ignore. There is a rare softness to his depictions of people. With slightly liquid eyes, benign of gaze. This is immediately apparent in the friendly gesture of the man who may be Agostino Doria (c. 1555), the intelligent face of the octogenarian Jacopo Soranzo (c. 1550), and even in the shrewd over-the-shoulder glance of the Prado’s own Man with a Golden Chain (c. 1555). I kind of missed the National Gallery picture of Vincenzo Morosini (c. 1580), which epitomizes the sensitive qualities of Tintoretto’s portraiture, but you cannot have everything. What I do not understand, however, is the inclusion of the late portrait of Alessandro Gritti (c. 1581-82). While the sitter’s expression is not uninteresting, the colours are gaudy and the execution is flat, unappealing and not at all up to the standard of the other included portraits. Some of this may be due to insensitive restoration, but it at least made this viewer at least wonder whether it is by Jacopo at all. This is exacerbated by the comparison, in the catalogue as well as on the wall in the gallery, to the justly famous late Self-portrait c. 1588) : a searingly spiritual look of life.

Check back soon for the fourth and last instalment on the exhibition.