Delving Into the Drawings of Tintoretto

You can never do too much drawing.” – Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594)


Head of Giuliano de' Medici, c. 1540 Art Gallery of South Australia

A master of the Late Italian Renaissance, Jacopo Tintoretto was acclaimed even in his day for his powerful and colorful compositions. So animated was his approach that he even earned the nickname “Il Furioso,” or “The Furious,” among his colleagues. While he is celebrated for his paintings, Tintoretto is also noteworthy for the remarkable number of sketches and drawings he completed during his career. These works on paper today provide us some insight into Tintoretto’s working process, specifically how he both drew ideas from other artists while simultaneously developing his own animated style.



Jacopo Tintoretto was born Jacopo Comin in the lagoon town of Venice in the early decades of the 16th century. Arriving on the art scene on the heels of turn-of-the-century Venetian masters such as the Bellini brothers, Giovanni and Gentile, and also Giorgione, Tintoretto found his early artistic inspiration within the studio of Titian, who had been a student of Giorgione himself. It was during this early study that Tintoretto began drawing as a means of study. Tintoretto gleaned a great deal from this in-depth examination of Titian’s works, but Titian, in turn, saw in these early sketches the blossoming of Tintoretto’s own style. As the story goes, Titian’s review of these early drawings led him to prophesize that Tintoretto was perhaps bound for artistic greatness . . . but not in Titian’s studio. Possibly realizing that Tintoretto could rapidly transform from artistic pupil to rival, Titian parted ways with Tintoretto. Accordingly, Tintoretto’s study turned elsewhere: to the work of Michelangelo.

It was in the midst of drawing after models of Michelangelo’s sculptures that Tintoretto truly mastered the composition of the figure. Michelangelo’s works were known for their meticulous musculature, and so Tintoretto capitalized on that fact to develop his own perfected approach to the human figure. See above left: Two Studies of Samson Slaying the Philistines, 16th Century


These drawings reveal Tintoretto’s deft handling of both chalk and charcoal, with his deliberate and bold strokes adding an air of confidence to his renderings. At the same time, they reveal Tintoretto’s ability to render realistically the medium of sculpture in drawn form. We can see, for example, in the Reclining Figure of Day, After Michelangelo (right), the way in which he has added the most delicate accents of white chalk. These dabs convey the illusion of glistening smooth marble, the medium in which Michelangelo’s Day is actually rendered (this is one of the sculptures that sits atop Michelangelo’s tomb designed for Giuliano de’ Medici; for more on this work, click here). This challenge to the medium of charcoal and chalk drawing reveals the level to which Tintoretto tested his abilities, but it also reflects his immense talents, as the illusion he attempted succeeds in convincing the viewer.

Tintoretto enjoyed a relatively long career, and his painted works are celebrated because they espouse the Venetian skill in coloristic effects along with an infusion of dynamism and drama that foreshadowed the impending Baroque era of the subsequent century. Beyond these paintings, however, we can explore Tintoretto’s work more intimately through his numerous drawings. These images reveal perhaps most clearly his love of experimentation and innovation in the Late Renaissance era.

Tintoretto’s drawings have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, with his works on paper featured prominently in larger exhibitions of his work, including the recent 2012 retrospective at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Have you had the pleasure of viewing one (or some) of Tintoretto’s drawings? If so, what drew you to them? Do you think these sketches and drawings tell us more about Tintoretto than his larger scale compositions in oil?

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published