National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Giorgione and the High Renaissance in Venice

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A search for luminous color and intuitive responses to nature—a pursuit, above all, of the sensuous—occupied painters in Venice for centuries. While artists in central Italy concentrated on the more intellectual aspects of form and structure, Venetian painters, beginning with Giovanni Bellini and his students, focused their attention on the surface of things, on color and texture, even on the paint itself.

With the work of Giorgione, one of Bellini's students, the Venetian High Renaissance truly began. Although he died very young, Giorgione's influence was enormous. For the private enjoyment of cultivated patrons he introduced new subjects: mythological scenes and pastorals with elusive meaning. To an unprecedented extent, mood is the primary "subject" of his works. Like Italian poetry of the time, the lyricism of his paintings was designed to delight and refresh. Light and shadow move imperceptibly into one another, and a soft atmosphere unifies landscape and figures, giving both a kind of mystery. For Giorgione more than any artist before him, the landscape became an end in itself. It was no longer a mere backdrop to the action of the figures but an equal actor in creating his poesia.

Giorgione is credited with several technical innovations as well. Although Bellini had mastered the new medium of oil pigments, some of his practices remained those of a tempera painter. He planned carefully, defining every element of his compositions in advance. By contrast, Giorgione worked directly and without detailed preparatory drawings. Many of his paintings show evidence of rethinking; radiographs reveal figures that were changed, added, or removed. Giorgione also increasingly favored canvas over wood panel as a painting support, a switch that brought about its own set of technical changes. Instead of painting from light to dark on a light ground, Giorgione used a darker ground and painted progressively from darker to lighter tones. Light seems to emerge from the darkness. The woven canvas encouraged a looser pattern of brushwork, one that breaks up the surface with light-reflecting textures, some thick, others of transparent thinness.

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