Bassano is easily the least known of the great painters of sixteenth-century Venice—a galaxy that includes Giorgione and Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, and Lorenzo Lotto. Why this should be so is not altogether clear, for he was an artist of remarkable originality and in his lifetime enjoyed a European reputation. However, the fact that he chose to remain in his native Bassano del Grappa, northwest of Venice, and there established a family practice that included his sons Francesco (1549–1592), Leandro (1557–1622), and Gerolamo (1566–1621), and that many of the altarpieces he supplied were to churches in the Venetian terra firma, certainly helps explain why Vasari—the famous biographer of Renaissance artists—slighted him the way he did. Bassano is only mentioned in passing, with the remark that many of his works are “very beautiful” and can be found “dispersed throughout Venice, and they are held in high esteem—especially the little works with animals of all kinds.” In other words, what struck Vasari, with his Florentine bias, was a particular kind of painting that became a specialty of the Bassano workshop in which biblical themes are treated with a genre-like emphasis on domestic settings and animals.
A far more just assessment is found in the biography published in the following century (1648) by the Venetian writer Carlo Ridolfi. There Bassano is rightly praised for his original and powerful style, based on a new naturalism. Today, Bassano is recognized as the author of some of the most astonishing as well as original pictures of the sixteenth century: works that combine an acute attention to naturalistic detail with elegantly choreographed figures and an interest in everyday activities. His night scenes broke new ground and were widely imitated (Annibale Carracci‘s small Burial of Christ [1998.188] in the Metropolitan Museum was inspired by an altarpiece by Bassano in Padua). So did his depictions of biblical scenes in a domestic mode, which are crucial to any history of genre painting. He was keenly attuned to the work of other artists and was quick to take up the most advanced ideas in painting. In other words, he embraced change and novelty as few others did while at the same time running an extremely profitable business.
His early paintings of the 1530s can strike a tone of domestic simplicity that, in some respects, seems a prelude to Caravaggio. A good example is his Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1538; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth), in which depictions of an innkeeper, a servant boy dressed in sixteenth-century costume carrying a roast chicken, a table with a dish of hardboiled eggs, bread, a glass of wine, cherries, and a dog and cat explore what might be thought of as a “humble” style of painting. The same is true of the haunting Flight into Egypt (1542; Toledo Museum of Art), in which the animals and the farm buildings in the background are given the same attention as the principal figures. There is an analogy in these pictures with certain devotional practices that sought to bring the events of the Bible closer to the lives of ordinary people. It is especially in this respect that Bassano’s work can be seen as a prelude to the revolution of realism championed by Caravaggio at the end of the century. At the same time, Bassano is acutely aware of the expectations of style, and his figures are always carefully posed.
Over the course of the 1540s, Bassano embraced the tenets of Mannerism and his figures move and gesture with a new balletic elegance. His awareness of the work of Raphael and Parmigianino was through the medium of prints, which he must have collected in great abundance. The masterpiece of this phase and one of the outstanding Renaissance paintings in America is The Flight into Egypt (ca. 1544–45; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena). What is remarkable in this work is that there is no decrease in the naturalism of the details—quite the opposite. Flora and fauna are observed with the attention we might expect from a botanist, while the landscape fully conveys Bassano’s love of the farms and villages dotting the foothills of the Alps. Light gives unity to this truly astonishing composition in which the two critical poles of Renaissance art—central Italian emphasis on drawing and design and a northern Italian naturalism achieved through an emphasis on color—are held in a dynamic balance.
Throughout the 1550s, Bassano emphasized “style” and “artifice” over “naturalism,” and he used color as an expressive device. Mimesis is no longer foremost in his mind, and his pictures acquired a new sophistication: their language became more elevated but not less expressive. During the 1560s and 1570s, he gave new emphasis to landscape and to domestic life—for instance, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha portrayed as a kitchen scene. But so far from possessing the deceptive simplicity of his early work, these pictures consciously play with ideas of what we could call high and low style, and the naturalistic details are completely integrated into an elegant style of great sophistication. These are works that compete on equal ground with the finest compositions of Tintoretto and Veronese. Bassano’s interest in setting his scenes in the evening or at night, with artificial illumination, was both innovative and enormously popular. Indeed, nocturnal scenes became a staple of his busy workshop. El Greco, who was in Venice between 1567 and 1570, was especially attentive to Bassano’s work.
The last decade of Bassano’s career is marked by yet another shift. By this time, Bassano’s most gifted son, Francesco, had set up an independent and highly profitable practice in Venice, receiving important commissions in the Doge’s palace and supplying pictures based on or inspired by his father’s work. Leandro Bassano became Jacopo’s principal assistant. However, far from relinquishing the brush, Jacopo explored a new and highly personal style clearly inspired by Titian’s later canvases, such as the The Crowning with Thorns (1576; Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (ca. 1558l Church of the Gesuiti, Venice), with their broken brushwork and nighttime settings. Original to the end, Bassano gave to Titian’s style an almost rustic vehemence—Carlo Ridolfi referred to his “stabs of the brush.” His last pictures, such as The Baptism of Christ (2012.99), are imbued with a quality of impending tragedy that can be seen as the paradigmatic product of old age: a dark meditation on life and mortality. The painting was left unfinished in his studio when he died and was retained by his heirs. What is unclear is how “unfinished,” or non finito, it really is, for the idea of an unfinished style was much discussed in the sixteenth century. Bassano seems to have intentionally employed a lack of finish for its expressive potential. The Baptism of Christ shares expressive affinities with the last paintings of Caravaggio and even with the so-called black paintings of Goya. They cannot help but strike the present-day viewer as remarkably modern.
Bassano was also a brilliant draftsman. Here, too, he was an innovator in his use of colored chalk on blue paper.