Jacopo Tintoretto was born in Venice around 1518 as Jacopo Comin, the eldest of Giovanni Comin's 21 children. The name Tintoretto was derived from the name of his father's profession, tintore, or dyer.
Tintoretto began dabbling in painting from an early age, often using his father's dyes to doodle on the walls of the house and his father's workshop. Giovanni, recognizing his son's calling, sought to get him an apprenticeship with an artist. The identity of Tintoretto’s first mentor is unknown, but his second teacher was Titian Vecelli.
This second apprenticeship was rather short-lived and the painter soon drove Tintoretto out. The reasons behind this falling out are unclear. The problem probably lay in Tintoretto’s headstrong, independent attitude. A few historians believe Titian may have become exceedingly envious of his apprentice's talent. However, Titian had a reputation as a patient master who was highly encouraging of budding artists, making this seem somewhat unlikely. In any case, the two painters remained on poor terms all the way until Titian's death in 1576.
As a result, Tintoretto was largely self-taught. Although he initially practiced by making copies of Titian’s paintings, several of which survive today, he preferred to paint from clay figurines and live models, often at night when he had more control over the position and angle of light sources. He was also known to spend substantial money on obtaining human corpses and body parts for dissection, to get a better grasp of human anatomy, a penchant he shared with several prominent artists of his day -- most notably Leonardo da Vinci. He was very meticulous about measuring the proportions of objects he was painting in order to more accurately recreate them on canvas.
However, although he was clearly gifted and mastered the craft quickly, Tintoretto was slow to make a name for himself, largely because Venice at the time was saturated with artists, especially Titian and his students. Priding himself on his independence, Tintoretto also did not seek any sponsors, hoping to achieve fame on the merits of his skill alone, which may have contributed to his slow rise to recognition. One of his first breakthroughs into the public eye is said to have come after a cleverly designed exposition of two of his paintings, both now lost, at an open-air public art show. Although the exhibition was held in broad daylight, Tintoretto made sure his pieces were brightly illuminated by artificial lighting. The originality of the display brought it much attention, and the art was praised highly by viewers and critics.
Although this success didn’t establish him lasting fame, it encouraged Tintoretto to persist in his attempts. Because he came from a relatively wealthy family, he could afford to work for free, in the hope that this would gain him paid commissions down the line. Though no such works survive to our knowledge, we know from anecdotes that he once painted a quick ornament on a large clock just as it was being fitted onto a public building, and on a different occasion decorated the walls of a church for no reimbursement except the cost of his supplies. At first these feats netted him little more than a handful of smaller commissions at several small churches, but in 1548 he was finally contracted his first major painting, the Miracle of St. Mark. However, although it is a today a highly-regard work of art, it received a rather cold reception from the monks who commissioned it. In retribution, the quick-tempered artist ordered his servants to remove it from the church. He held it in his workshop until he received a letter of apology, as well as commissions for three more paintings, including Finding of the body of St. Mark (circa 1562).
In 1560, Tintoretto was among several artists to be invited by the Brotherhood of Saint Roch, a very wealthy and powerful religious order, to compete for the job of decorating a round ceiling in one of the rooms of their guild house. Allegedly, the artists were meant to present designs for the Brotherhood to evaluate, but while his competitors busied themselves with their sketches Tintoretto instead set to work on the actual painting, The Apotheosis of Saint Roch (1560-64), which he completed in record time and took the liberty of surreptitiously installing on the ceiling in question. Understandably, this surprise didn't go over well with either the other artists involved or the Brotherhood, but Tintoretto, seeing their hesitation, exploited one of the Brotherhood's rules, which stated that they could never reject a gift, and offered them the work free of charge. With no choice but to accept, the Brotherhood kept the painting and proceeded to commission more works from Tintoretto over many years, effectively keeping him busy for the rest of his life. Tintoretto's paintings for the Brotherhood included some of his most famous pieces, such as Assumption of the Virgin (circa 1555), Crucifixion (1565), Saint Roch in Prison Visited by an Angel (1567), Adoration of the Magi (1582), Flight into Egypt (1582-87), Massacre of the Innocents (1582-87), Annunciation (1583-87), Circumcision (circa 1587), and Visitation (circa 1588).
Despite the long list of commissions coming in from the Brotherhood of Saint Roch, as well as other work, Tintoretto continued striving for more recognition. He participated in another high profile competition, this time for the honor of decorating the Great Council Hall (Sala del Consiglio) of the Ducal Palace in Urbino. In a stroke of luck for the painter, the winner of the contest, Veronese, died before he could get to work, and Tintoretto, as the runner-up, was called upon to replace him. He produced a number of paintings for this project, the most noteworthy of which was Paradise (1588-circa 1589). It was also his last major commission and is one of the largest oil paintings in the world at 30 by 74 feet. It's considered by some to be his crowning achievement, and according to some accounts, this sentiment was shared by Tintoretto himself.
Tintoretto fell ill several years later and, after lingering for about three weeks in pain, died on May 31, 1594. His death, close on the heels of Titian's and Veronese's, marked the end of a great era in Venetian painting.
Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice by Frederick Ilchman, David Rosand, Linda Borean, Patricia Brown, John Garton. MFA Publications, 2009.
Tintoretto by V. Sgarbi, G. Villa G. Morello. Skira, 2012.
Tintoretto (Masters of Italian Art) by Roland Krischel. Konemann, 2000.
The Sacred Image in the Age of Art: Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, Caravaggio by Marcia B. Hall. Yale University Press, 2011.
Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity by Tom Nichols. Reaktion Books, 2004.
Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto by David Rosand. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
1548. Oil on canvas. 416 x 544 cm. Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy. Read Note.
c. 1562. Oil on canvas. 400 x 400 cm. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy. Read Note.
Early-mid-1560s. Oil on canvas. 440 cm x 260 cm. Church of the Gesuiti, Venice, Italy. Read Note.
1565. Oil on canvas. 536 x 1224 cm. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Read Note.
1583-1587. Oil on canvas. 422 x 545 cm. Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Read Note.
1588-92. Oil on canvas. 700 x 2200 cm. Salla del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy.
c.1542. Oil on canvas. 156 x 212 cm. Szepmuveszeti Museum, Budapest, Hungary. Read Note.