Titian Tintoretto, Vernonese Awe at MFA

Tintoretto—a nickname meaning “little dyer” after his father’s profession—was the eldest of 22 children (his father must have been busy with more than staining wool) and is one of three Olympian daubers of color on canvas whose works fill the superb exhibit of 16th century Venetian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts. This show, “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice,” on view through August 16, brings together with rare serendipity an embarrassment of stunning paintings on loan from museums around the world. This triumvirate of Venetian painters seems to engage in a pictorial brinksmanship, each work one-upping the last: Titian’s consummate composition and beauty, Veronese’s ebullient gatherings of pastel-clad figures, or Tintoretto’s brilliant challenges to the status quo.

The exhibition begins at a turning point in the history of painting, with the shift from wood panels to stretched canvases as the substrate for the painted work. The contrasting pair that opens the exhibition juxtaposes a Titian canvas with an earlier Bellini panel of a similar scene, a virgin surrounded by saints. The smooth surface of the polished wood panel and the carefully hidden brushstrokes give the Bellini its placidly silken, liquid surface, and even its painted and columned frame recalls the Italian High Renaissance; but the rougher surface of the canvas seems to free Titian to make visible his brushwork and lend his gilt-framed work a subdued and textured frisson.

Titian dominates this first room of the exhibition, and his remarkable portrait of Pope Paul III introduces the psychological depths that set off these Venetians from their southern predecessors. The pope sits in a sea of faded velvet—his mantle and his chair—a fading man himself, not proud, with slightly bowed shoulders. His hands have a vitality and firmness that is balanced against his reticent, or perhaps suspicious, visage; the portrait recognized the inner life of its subject, which was something almost entirely new. Earlier, Michelangelo’s unfinished statues of slaves for the tomb of Pope Julius II also begin to reveal the psychological turmoil of their subject, but this Venetian school takes the artistic display of psychological depth to the next level, with massive canvases of deep emotional power, making possible the work of El Greco and Caravaggio.

The exhibition is not arranged by strict chronology but rather thematically, and the most central room is devoted to erotic works (the room is entered past a kitschy cloth of red brocade that is tied back from the entrance by a gold cord). Here, the three artists explored the female nude in biblical and classical scenes charged with sexual tension. For me, the two paints that dominated the room were Tintoretto’s “Susannah and the Elders”—surprising in its serene, almost art nouveau beauty and flatness of color and pictorial space—and Titian’s “Danaë”—the finest of multiple versions of the same scene. “Danaë” shows the rape of the mother of Perseus (voluptuously spread on a coach) by Zeus, who has transformed himself into a shower of gold coins—a 24-carat money shot—to seduce her. The scene clearly had intense popular attraction, and transgressive erotic appeal, and one contemporary remarked that this version made one of Titian’s earlier editions of the scene look like a portrait of a nun.

Where these artists made their fame and their fortunes, however, was with large-scale religious works for Venice’s hundreds of churches, and apparently there was no contradiction between painting a Last Supper on Tuesday and a sexually charged nude on Wednesday (though it seems like Martin Scorsese filming a porno). Through all of the rooms, the intense rivalry between these three painters is brought out through skillful curatorial design; a striking pairing of “Last Suppers” shows the differences between Titian and Tintoretto. While the Titian is beautifully composed and rich in detail, the Tintoretto is a parody of Titian’s scene. All of the figures surrounding Christ are looking away from him, and the colors are muddy and the brushstrokes rough, as if flipping the finger to his older rival. Moving through the exhibition, each artist seems in turn to outdo his rivals, producing works of ever-greater beauty and power—and yet, at the end, it is Tintoretto who seems, if not the most supremely skilled, the most challenging, inventive, and creative of the triumvirate.

Tintoretto’s canvases occasionally verge on the ugly with deeply shadowed figures, violent brushstrokes, garish colors (a glowing turquoise matched with a browning plum in “Esther Before Ahasuerus”), and unsettling compositions. And yet, even more than Titian and Veronese, Tintoretto seems to constantly challenge and evolve, moving from a Bellini-like beauty to the glowing and ethereally evocative religious figures of his later work, which prefigure El Greco. Perhaps it was intentional that Frederick Ilchman, the show’s curator and a preeminent expert on Tintoretto, constructed the exhibit to make Tintoretto seem the most inventive and original of the three. A youthful and fiery self-portrait by Tintoretto helps anchor the first room, and the last painting is a solemn and piercing-eyed self-portrait of the aged dyer’s son, emphasizing his importance and bookending a rare and incredible exhibit.

—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at fabry@fas.harvard.edu.