WASHINGTON — Imagine a business-minded artist on deadline, working in a studio with an army of assistants to produce huge works.
He’s savvy about publicity and about developments in technology that make it easier for him to get his images out into the world. He’ll agree to an impossible deadline on a project to make sure a rival doesn’t get it first.
If that sounds like a superstar artist of today, maybe so. But it also describes Jacopo Tintoretto, the Venetian painter born 500 years ago who stormed the Western world with his emotionally resonant religious scenes, mythological canvases and revealing portraits.
Tintoretto (1518-94) came in the last wave of the Italian Renaissance. A bit overshadowed in art history by Titian, the supremely talented local elder, Tintoretto is famous but may not register as clearly as other painters of the age.
An exhibition here at the National Gallery of Art opening March 24, “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” aims to clarify and deepen knowledge of his work with 46 paintings and 10 drawings.
It will be on view until July 7 alongside two related shows through June 9, “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice” and “Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto.”
Tintoretto was a master of commanding attention in his day. In many of his works, figures in a crowd are in motion — pointing, falling, reaching — as some momentous occurrence unfolds, and they often have an awe-struck look that mirrors the viewer’s.
In the days when a static image had to give people the same frisson as an action movie or “The Real Housewives,” “he was able to turn up the drama,” said Frederick Ilchman, chairman of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who organized the show with Robert Echols, an independent scholar.
“What he does better than anyone are these energetic religious paintings that make you feel some miracle is actually happening,” said Ilchman, whose doctorate is in the painter’s work.
One example in the show is “Saint George and the Dragon” (about 1555), which is at once bloody — with a murderous dragon fit for “Game of Thrones” and the beast’s victim splayed on the ground — but also suffused with holy, hopeful light streaming in from above.
The exhibition is the first full-scale Tintoretto retrospective in the United States — many of the artworks have not traveled here before. A version of it was previously on view at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.
Last month, the museum’s staff was scrambling to make up time lost in the 35-day government shutdown, during which the museum was closed and preparations stopped (the opening date was delayed two weeks). The National Gallery’s director of exhibitions, D. Dodge Thompson, called it a terrible situation.
Some of the works are enormous — the two biggest, “The Madonna of the Treasurers” (1567) and “Paradiso (modello)” (1583) measure more than 16 feet long — and some were originally created for specific architectural spaces. So baffles, or partial walls, had to be built to hold them.
Priceless loans in limbo made lenders nervous. “People want to know where their works are,” Thompson said.
The very idea of old masters may seem distant to some, but the National Gallery, which has a strong collection of them, including six paintings by Tintoretto, fights that perception.
“I believe they have profound relevance for today,” said Kaywin Feldman, the new director of the museum. “This show is right in the National Gallery’s wheelhouse.”
In addition to what she called Tintoretto’s virtuosic use of paint and storytelling ability, she cited the enduring power that physical artworks from long ago can bring to our digital age.
“People really care about seeing original works of art now,” said Feldman, until recently director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “The No. 1 comment I get is: ‘I can’t believe this is the original, and I can walk right up to it.'”
Ilchman said he believed that the context of Tintoretto’s commercial hustle helped drive home that sense of immediacy.
“At the time, Venice was the most populist city in Europe,” he said of Tintoretto’s 16th-century milieu. “It was a hive of commerce and capitalism. It wasn’t for nothing that Shakespeare set ‘The Merchant of Venice’ there.”
“Tintoretto grew up in this atmosphere, and there was a sense of having to market yourself,” Ilchman added. “He would give away free paintings to increase his market share. The way Picasso and Jeff Koons marketed themselves? That started with Tintoretto.”
The artist worked quickly, earning him the nickname “Il Furioso” — his second nickname, actually, given that Tintoretto means “little dyer.”
Five centuries later, the painter’s origins are clear in outline, but not in every detail. Born Jacopo Robusti — a surname his family acquired for their robust defense of Padua against an invading army — his father was a silk-dyer at a time when Venice specialized in luxury goods.
It’s not clear how much education Tintoretto had, or how much apprenticeship he did, but by age 20 he was a painter with his own workshop.
Ilchman and Echols argue that Tintoretto’s “Self-Portrait” (1546/1548) — painted barely a decade later — was already a breakthrough in Western art for its assertiveness, directness and the bold handling of the paint. Tintoretto looks directly at the viewer from a dark, shadowy background.
He meant business, and as he evolved his practice, his studio acquired many assistants so that it could produce a lot of pictures — a factor that poses something of a problem for scholars.
“There was a dilution of quality, and he also had a lot mediocre impostors,” Ilchman said. “That meant until recently, there was a lot of confusion about his oeuvre. We have been working on refining his output.”
Straightening out the Tintorettos from the school-of pictures was part of the curatorial task, and so was a deep dive into the materials of the day and how they were changing.
Nearly everything Tintoretto made was on canvas — common now, but quite a new development then. He was in the second generation of canvas painters; previously, tempera on panel was the standard, and normally the painter made the work in the place where it would eventually reside.
“It gave artistic freedom to be able to work in one place and ship to another, and Tintoretto picks up on this,” Ilchman said.
It allowed Tintoretto to stay put in Venice most of the time, one of the many reasons his work will always be linked to the city.
Ilchman is chairman of Save Venice, the organization devoted to preserving the city’s art and architecture, and the group got directly involved in making the exhibition happen.
“We wanted to make sure that something monumental was done for Tintoretto,” said Melissa Conn, Save Venice’s longtime director. “He’s one of our big three artists: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese. And as the one actually born here, he’s the true native son.”
Save Venice donated more than $1 million to the conservation of 26 paintings, funding a curatorial assistant and publishing a guide to Tintoretto’s local works.
Conn may have a civic and local focus to her work, but her take on Tintoretto’s paintings is shared by Ilchman.
“These objects belong to the world,” Conn said, “not just Venetians.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.