"Carpaccio" is an italianized form of Scarpanza, the name of the Venetian merchant family into which the artist was born. After signing an early work "Vetor Scarpanzo," he used variants of the Latin "Carpatio" or "Carpathius" for the rest of his career.
Nothing definite is known about Carpaccio's training and early career, although it is likely that he apprenticed in the Bellini studio, where he probably worked with both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Subsequently he may have traveled for a period on the Italian mainland. His earliest dated work is the Arrival of Saint Ursula at Cologne from the cycle depicting the legend of Saint Ursula (originally Scuola di Sant'Orsola; now Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice), inscribed with the date 1490. By this time, although undoubtedly still young (stylistic evidence suggests that very few of his surviving paintings predate the Arrival at Cologne), he was well enough established as an independent painter to receive a commission of this prominence.
Carpaccio is best known for his narrative cycles for Venetian scuole, or lay confraternities. In addition to the one for Sant'Orsola, executed over the course of the 1490s, they include those for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (still in the scuola, though not in their original location) and the Scuola degli Albanesi (now dispersed), both of which date from the first decade of the sixteenth century, and the Scuola di Santo Stefano (also dispersed), from the following decade. Carpaccio also contributed a painting to the prominent cycle depicting the Miracles of the Reliquary of the True Cross at the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (now Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice) in 1494. In 1507 he attained the summit of prestige for Venetian history painting with a commission to contribute to the series of large pictures decorating the Sala del Gran (Maggior) Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale, all of which were destroyed in the fire of 1577.
With their narrative directness, spatial clarity, multiplicity of figures, and decorative richness, Carpaccio's narrative pictures stand directly in the tradition of Venetian history painting that is exemplified by comparable works of Gentile Bellini. Yet a strikingly distinctive personality emerges as well, in their lively anecdote, vivid humanity, and fantastic architectural and landscape settings. Carpaccio's paintings for the scuole contain some of the most memorable images of Venetian Renaissance painting: the bustling Grand Canal at Rialto from the Miracle of the True Cross; the sleeping saint in her bedchamber from the Saint Ursula cycle; courtiers lounging in a loggia from the same group; and Saint Augustine in his study with his little dog beside him, from San Giorgio degli Schiavoni.
Carpaccio also executed a number of altarpieces for churches in Venice and the provinces, but his talents do not seem to have been best suited to works of this type. His efforts to achieve the idealized, monumental serenity of Giovanni Bellini's altarpieces can appear stilted, mechanical, and artificially inflated. More effective are Carpaccio's small-scale devotional works, some of which match the narrative cycles in their inventiveness and appeal.
In Carpaccio's best works, his pictorial style is characterized by fluent technique and a mastery of light and color. But even at the height of his career his oeuvre is strikingly uneven, and his powers and inspiration declined in the later years of his career. In addition to works clearly done with studio assistance, even some apparently autograph paintings seem flat and perfunctory. This variation in quality makes it very difficult to date Carpaccio's works on stylistic grounds, despite the survival of an unusually high proportion of dated pictures to serve as guideposts. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Lauts, Jan. Carpaccio, Paintings and Drawings. Complete Edition. Trans Eria Millman and Marguerite Kay. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1962.
Humfrey, Peter. Carpaccio. Florence, 1991.
Sgarbi, Vittorio. Carpaccio. New York, London, and Paris, 1994. Italian ed. Milan, 1994.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 187.