Jacopo Tintoretto was born in Venice in 1518, as the eldest of 21 children. His father, Giovanni, was a dyer, or tintore, hence the son got the nickname of Tintoretto, little dyer, or dyer's boy, which is anglicized as Tintoret. The family originated from Brescia, in Lombardy, then part of the Republic of Venice. Older studies gave the Tuscan town of Lucca as the origin of the family.
In childhood Jacopo, a born painter, began daubing on the dyer's walls, his father, noticing his bent, took him to the studio of Titian to see how far he could be trained as an artist. We may suppose this to have been towards 1533, when Titian was already (according to the ordinary accounts) fifty-six years of age.
Tintoretto had only been ten days in the studio when Titian sent him home once and for all, the reason being that the great master observed some very spirited drawings, which he learned to be the production of Tintoretto, and it is inferred that he became at once jealous of so promising a scholar. This, however, is mere conjecture, and perhaps it may be fairer to suppose that the drawings exhibited so much independence of manner that Titian judged that young Jacopo, although he might become a painter, would never be properly a pupil.
From this time forward the two always remained upon distant terms, Tintoretto being indeed a professed and ardent admirer of Titian, but never a friend, and Titian and his adherents turning the cold shoulder to him. Active disparagement also was not wanting, but it passed unnoticed by Tintoretto. The latter sought for no further teaching, but studied on his own account with laborious zeal, he lived poorly, collecting casts, bas-reliefs, &c., and practising by their aid. His noble conception of art and his high personal ambition were evidenced in the inscription which he placed over his studio Il disegno di Michelangelo ed il colorito di Tiziano ("Michelangelo's design and Titian's color").
He studied more especially from models of Michelangelo's's Dawn, Noon, Twilight and Night, and became expert in modelling in wax and clay method (practised likewise by Titian) which afterwards stood him in good stead in working out the arrangement of his pictures. The models were sometimes taken from dead subjects dissected or studied in anatomy schools, some were draped, others nude, and Tintoretto was to suspend them in a wooden or cardboard box, with an aperture for a candle. Now and afterwards he very frequently worked by night as well as by day.
The young painter Andrea Schiavone, four years Tintoretto's junior, was much in his company. Tintoretto helped Schiavone gratis in wall-paintings, and in many subsequent instances he worked also for nothing, and thus succeeded in obtaining commissions. The two earliest mural paintings of Tintoretto - done, like others, for next to no pay - are said to have been Belshazzar's Feast and a Cavalry Fight. These are both long since perished, as are all his frescoes, early or later. The first work of his to attract some considerable notice was a portrait-group of himself and his brother - the latter playing a guitar - with a nocturnal effect, this also is lost. It was followed by some historical subject, which Titian was candid enough to praise.
One of Tintoretto's early pictures still extant is in the church of the Carmine in Venice, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, also in S. Benedetto are the Annunciation and Christ with the Woman of Samaria. For the Scuola della Trinity (the scuole or schools of Venice were more in the nature of hospitals or charitable foundations than of educational institutions) he painted four subjects from Genesis. Two of these, now in the Venetian Academy, are Adam and Eve and the Death of Abel, both noble works of high mastery, which leave us in no doubt that Tintoretto was by this time a consummate painter - one of the few who have attained to the highest eminence in the absence of any formal training.
We here reach the crowning production of Tintoretto's life, the last picture of any considerable importance which he executed, the vast Paradise, in size 74 ft. by 30, reputed to be the largest painting ever done upon canvas. It is a work so stupendous in scale, so colossal in the sweep of its power, so reckless of ordinary standards of conception or method, so pure an inspiration of a soul burning with passionate visual imagining and a hand magical to work in shape and color, that it has defied the connoisseurship of three centuries, and has generally (though not with its first Venetian contemporaries) passed for an eccentric failure, while to a few eyes it seems to be so transcendent a monument of human faculty applied to the art pictorial as not to be viewed without awe.
While the commission for this huge work was yet pending and unassigned Tintoretto was wont to tell the senators that he had prayed to God that he might be commissioned for it, so that Paradise itself might perchance be his recompense after death. Upon eventually receiving the commission in 1588 he set up his canvas in the Scuola della Misericordia and worked indefatigably at the task, making many alterations and doing various heads and costumes direct from nature.
When the picture had been nearly completed he took it to its proper place and there finished it, assisted by his son Domenico for details of drapery, etc. All Venice applauded the superb achievement, which has since suffered from neglect, but little from restoration. Tintoretto was asked to name his own price, but this he left to the authorities. They tendered a handsome amount, he is said to have abated something from it, an incident perhaps more telling of his lack of greed than earlier cases where he worked for nothing at all.
After the completion of the Paradise Tintoretto rested for a while, and he never undertook any other work of importance, though there is no reason to suppose that his energies were exhausted had his days been a little prolonged.
In 1592 he became a member of the Scuola di Mercanti.
In 1594, he was seized with severe stomach pains, complicated with fever, that prevented him from sleeping and almost from eating for a fortnight. Finally, on May 31, 1594 he died. He was buried in the church of the Madonna dell'Orto by the side of his favorite daughter Marietta, who had died in 1590 at the age of thirty. Tradition suggests that as she lay in her final repose, her heart-stricken father had painted her final portrait.
Marietta had herself been a portrait-painter of considerable skill, as well as a musician, vocalist and instrumentalist, but few of her works are now traceable. It is said that up to the age of fifteen she used to accompany and assist her father at his work, dressed as a boy. Eventually, she married a jeweler, Mario Augusta. In 1866 the grave of the Vescovi and Tintoretto was opened, and the remains of nine members of the joint families were found in it. The grave was then moved to a new location, to the right of the choir.
Tintoretto had very few pupils, his two sons and Martin de Vos of Antwerp were among them. His son Domenico (1562-1637) frequently assisted his father in the groundwork of great pictures. He himself painted a multitude of works, many of them of a very large scale. At best, they would be considered mediocre and, coming from the son of Tintoretto, are exasperating. In any event, he must be regarded as a considerable pictorial practitioner in his way. There are reflections of Tintoretto to be found in the Greek painter of the Spanish Renaissance El Greco, who likely saw his works during a stay in Venice.
Tintoretto scarcely ever travelled out of Venice. He loved all the arts and as a youth played the lute and various instruments, some of them of his own invention, and designed theatrical costumes and properties. He was also versed in mechanics and mechanical devices while being a very agreeable companion. For the sake of his work, he lived in a mostly retired fashion, and even when not painting was wont to remain in his working room surrounded by casts. Here he hardly admitted any, even intimate friends, and he kept his mode of work secret, with the exception of his assistants. He abounded in pleasant witty sayings, whether to great personages or to others, but he himself seldom smiled.
Out of doors, his wife made him wear the robe of a Venetian citizen, if it rained she tried to induce him with an outer garment which he resisted. When he left the house, she would also wrap money up for him in a handkerchief, expecting a strict accounting on his return. Tintoretto's customary reply was that he had spent it on alms to the poor or to prisoners.
An agreement is extant showing a plan to finish two historical paintings, each containing twenty figures, seven being portraits in a two month period of time. The number of his portraits is enormous, their merit is unequaled, but the really fine ones cannot be surpassed. Sebastiano del Piombo remarked that Tintoretto could paint in two days as much as himself in two years, Annibale Carracci that Tintoretto was in many pictures equal to Titian, in others inferior to Tintoretto. This was the general opinion of the Venetians, who said that he had three pencils - one of gold, the second of silver and the third of iron.
A comparison of Tintoretto's final The Last Supper with Leonardo da Vinci's treatment of the same subject provides an instructive demonstration of how artistic styles evolved over the course of the Renaissance. Leonardo's is all classical repose. The disciples radiate away from Christ in almost-mathematical symmetry. In the hands of Tintoretto, the same event becomes dramatic, as the human figures are joined by angels. A servant is foregrounded, perhaps in reference to the Gospel of John 13:14-16. In the restless dynamism of his composition, his dramatic use of light, and his emphatic perspective effects, Tintoretto seems a baroque artist ahead of his time.