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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jacopo Bassano

Jacopo Bassano Self-portrait, 1590s
I've often thought I should start a series titled "Artists You've Never Heard of, But Should Have." I suppose, indirectly I have, in effect, already done just that, though without the formality of labeling it as such. In any case, label or no label, Jacopo Bassano fits in that category. Like so many artists of his time, (1510-1592) Bassano was not his real name. Italian artists were as prone to making up new names for themselves as Hollywood movie stars. His real name was Jacopo dal Ponte. Bassano was the name of the town near Venice where he was born. It was also the name he passed down to his four sons, all of whom apprenticed in his workshop, following in their father's footsteps to the point art historians have largely given up decreeing who painted what among them.
Bassano is interesting, even important, not so much because his paintings are important. Many are not even interesting, in fact. He painted largely religious scenes with the occasional portrait, classical nude, even dogs, cats, and other noisy neighborhood nuisances. He was not unlike dozens of other 16th century Italian artists, neither better nor worse than most, which makes him quite average--one of the worst things you can say about an artist of any era. Perhaps worst of all, he was a Mannerist. What makes his work as a whole important is that he was such a quintessential Mannerist. The progression of Bassano's work following his apprenticeship with his own father, a minor, provincial, Renaissance artist with something of a Venetian bent, to old age is that it so perfectly charts the Mannerist movement through what is essentially three generations of the same family of artists.
Supper at Emmaus, 1538, Jacopo Bassano
In 1538 (at the age of 28), Bassano painted Supper at Emmaus (above). There is to be seen the influence of Parmigianino, Raphael, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto--a list spanning more than a hundred years. How could one man, especially an artist as insignificant as Bassano, have known all these "greats." The fact is, he didn't. He may have know Titian and Veronese, maybe even Tintoretto, but the real source of all these diverse influences were etched prints (some hand-colored). This type of broad exposure was quite common during the Mannerist era and indeed, an important hallmark of this much-maligned style, perhaps even part of the cause of its "much-malignment." As with too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the broth, too many influences at the easel muddy the painting.
The Last Supper, 1542, Jacopo Bassano--"Gentlemen, could I have your attention?"
That may be a poor metaphor in that Bassano's colors were anything but muddy. His 1542 Last Supper (above) could, in fact, stand a little subtle "mud" here and there. As if his "Technicolor" tendencies weren't bad enough, Bassano here exhibits the Mannerist penchant for "fill-every-square-inch" complexity and overwhelmingly mundane detail. Were there really sleeping dogs, not to mention sleeping apostles, coupled with what appears to be a constant din of ongoing conversation in the upper room the night Jesus decreed the details of his memorial ritual? Were the apostles garbed in 16th century street close exposing shapely legs and sinewy forearms? I rather doubt it. Only Tintoretto is more obnoxious in this regard. This is Bassano's mature style. It's also Mannerism in its maturity.
The Baptism of Christ, 1590-92, Jacopo Bassano
Around 1590, perhaps one of his final works, Bassano painted his Baptism of Christ. It's nothing like his earlier efforts. As he grew older, his palette grew darker and more subdued (if not his compositional tastes). We see the influence of Titian and Tintoretto having crept into his work, but more importantly, the first hopeful glimmers of the Baroque. Bassano was among the first to paint nocturnes and scenes utilizing artificial light, a hallmark of the next generation of baroque artists such as Caravaggio. Fifty years is a long period in a man's life and an artist's career. Though a relatively short period in the history of art, even then, fifty years could allow for considerable changes in styles and tastes. Bassano's life's work chronicles these changes (and in some cases the lack of change which bedeviled the Mannerist era). In studying this man's work, forget his name...names (both of them). Think of his work (coupled with that of his father and of his sons, bottom) as a concise Mannerist timeline instead. Okay, you might want to remember one of his names.  In any case, he's very much an artist you've likely never heard of...but should have.

Lamentation over the Dead Body of Christ, 1580s, Francesco Bassano
(the younger, named for his grandfather)--more Baroque than Mannerist.

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