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Robert Echols, “Italian 16th Century, Jacopo Tintoretto/The Worship of the Golden Calf/c. 1594,” Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/321 (accessed July 16, 2019).

 

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Overview

This complex scene depicts a series of events as told in Exodus 32, with several vignettes carrying the main narrative from the middle into the background. In the center middle ground, the Israelites watch as the high priest Aaron collects golden ornaments for the making of an idol in the form of a golden calf, which he is shown casting in the far background. In the left background, the completed calf is displayed upon an altar, surrounded by worshippers; in the center right background are scenes of feasting and merrymaking. In the far upper right, a fiery light bathes the lower body of Moses on Mount Sinai as he receives the Ten Commandments. (The upper part of the canvas was cut at some point.) In the foreground, to the left and right, are richly dressed revelers and observers. The man at the far upper left looking out of the scene appears to be a portrait.

The overall composition is loosely based upon one of the last works produced by the Tintoretto studio during Jacopo’s lifetime (The Gathering of the Manna, 1592/1594). The similarities suggest that The Worship of the Golden Calf was painted in the Tintoretto studio around the time of Jacopo Tintoretto’s death in 1594, or possibly later, when the shop was headed by his son Domenico Tintoretto (Venetian, 1560 - 1635).

Entry

The painting depicts the events of Exodus 32, with the main events of the story appearing in the middle and background. In the center middle ground, the Israelites watch as the high priest Aaron collects golden ornaments for the making of an idol in the form of a golden calf, which he is shown casting in the far background. In the left background, the completed calf is displayed upon an altar, surrounded by worshippers; in the center right background are scenes of feasting and merrymaking. In the far upper right, the now-truncated figure of Moses on Mount Sinai (see Technical Summary) is bathed in a fiery light as he receives the Ten Commandments. In the foreground, to the left and right, are richly dressed revelers and observers. The man at the far upper left looking out of the scene appears to be a portrait.

Around the time of its purchase by the Kress Foundation in 1935, The Worship of the Golden Calf was attributed to Jacopo Tintoretto in manuscript opinions from Roberto Longhi, Giuseppe Fiocco, Raimond van Marle, August L. Mayer, F. Mason Perkins, Wilhelm Suida, Adolfo Venturi, and Bernard Berenson, most of whom considered it an early work.[1] The autograph status of the work was affirmed in 1950 by Rodolfo Pallucchini, who dated it to circa 1555 or later, and by Berenson in 1957.[2] Subsequent scholars have moved away from the early dating and seen signs of studio assistance. Pierluigi De Vecchi classified it as by Jacopo with collaboration from circa 1560. Fern Rusk Shapley, too, considered it a largely studio work from circa 1560, but because of the vigor of the underpainting, suggested that Jacopo laid in the principal figures and supervised the execution. Pallucchini and Paola Rossi acknowledged considerable studio assistance, while retaining the attribution to Jacopo and the date of circa 1555.[3]

Hans Tietze, in 1948, took a different view, dating the picture late in the century and relating it to the style of Marco Tintoretto.[4] More recently, Bert W. Meijer has attributed the landscape to Paolo Fiammingo (Pauwels Franck; 1540–1596); noting that the painting is usually dated to the 1550s and that Paolo was not documented in Venice before the 1570s, he commented that either the landscape was added later or the whole painting dates from some time after Paolo’s arrival.[5] Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman assigned the picture to the Tintoretto studio, 1592 or later, agreeing that the landscape suggests the work of a northern painter.[6]

The judgment of the picture first made by Tietze (although not his specific link to the name of Marco Tintoretto) remains convincing. Like a number of works assigned in the past to Tintoretto in his early years or around 1555, The Worship of the Golden Calf is the work of a later, different hand.[7] While the figure types are generically similar to those of Tintoretto, they lack the dynamism and convincing anatomy that appear in the master’s autograph paintings.[8] The loose brushwork in the highlights is a weak imitation of Tintoretto’s fluid calligraphy. Moreover, a distinctive hand seems to be present here, one that cannot be identified in other works associated with Tintoretto. It is detectable in the principal faces, the overall pastel tonalities, the northern qualities of the landscape, and the shiny texture of the fabrics on the two principal figures.

The overall composition is loosely based upon the Gathering of the Manna of 1592/1594, still in the church for which it was created, San Giorgio Maggiore, and one of the last works produced by the Tintoretto studio during Jacopo’s lifetime [fig. 1]. That painting also features repoussoir figures at either side, with a series of vignettes carrying the narrative into the background. Particularly close is the treatment of space in the upper center of the painting, with a round hillock and a view of figures in a covered area (a grotto in the San Giorgio Maggiore painting, a tent in the Gallery’s picture).

All of this evidence suggests that The Worship of the Golden Calf was painted in the Tintoretto studio around the time of Jacopo Tintoretto’s death in 1594, or possibly later, when the shop was headed by Domenico Tintoretto. The northern quality of the landscape, along with the sheen of the fabrics, suggests an artist from beyond the Alps. Meijer’s attribution of the landscape to Paolo Fiammingo seems apposite; however, the figure types and the technique used to render them differ from those in Paolo’s paintings. It is possible that Paolo painted the landscape, but it seems more likely, given the probable date, that the entire painting was executed by another northern artist, perhaps one who had also worked with Paolo. A number of northern artists seem to have come and gone in Tintoretto’s studio; however, the role of northern artists in the body of paintings associated with Tintoretto is a complicated question that has only recently begun to receive the attention it merits.[9]

Robert Echols

March 21, 2019

Provenance

Hastings (or Hasting) collection, England.[1] possibly (David M. Koetser Gallery, New York).[2] (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence); sold 26 June 1935 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1939
Dutch and Italian Masterpieces from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, Dayton Art Institute, 1939-1940, no catalogue.
1939
Masterpieces of Five Centuries, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939, no. 55.
1940
Masterpieces of Art. European & American Paintings 1500-1900, New York World's Fair, 1940, no. 19, repro.
Technical Summary

The support consists of six pieces of a heavy, twill-weave fabric with four seams. Two vertical seams are located 75 centimeters from the left edge and 120 centimeters from the right edge, just in between the two repoussoir groups. The horizontal seam is located 39 centimeters from the top, through the arms of the standing figures on the left and just above the head of the balding man on the right. A seventh piece of fabric, a small strip at the bottom center, roughly 13 centimeters in height, is a later replacement. All the tacking edges have been removed, but cusping at the sides and bottom indicates that these dimensions are near the original. The lack of cusping at the top supports the visual evidence that the canvas has been cut there, severing the kneeling figure at the upper right.

The white ground is very thin, and the x-radiographs suggest it was applied with a palette knife or spatula. The artist laid in the central composition with a free, brushy sketch in black over the ground. A thin, dark imprimatura blocks in the area of the left repoussoir, which is then sketched with white. The brown imprimatura may extend over other parts of the composition, including the right-side repoussoir, which combines differently colored underpainting layers and white-paint sketching. The paint is applied freely, using a full range of applications, from glazes through impasted linear highlights. The preliminary sketching provided a guide for the painter but is not rigorously followed, and revisions are quickly sketched over broader paint layers. Just to the right of center, a male figure and an area of green landscape are partly covered by a transparent layer of blue paint. This appears to be the result of the mistaken removal during an old restoration of the top layers of paint that the artist had added over the figure, intending to cover it. The overall condition is good, although there is scattered flaking and some abrasion of the paint, especially in the darks. The abrasion allows the dark fabric to show through in some areas. There is also an old tear extending from the top edge at the center of the composition. Some retouching has become discolored, and there are stains and remnants of old, discolored varnishes on the surface. The paint on the inserted canvas is different in color and texture; this can be assumed to be a later replacement. In 1936 Stephen Pichetto relined the picture, removed a discolored varnish, and inpainted it. Mario Modestini inpainted the picture further and applied another layer of varnish in 1955.

Robert Echols and Joanna Dunn based on the examination report by Catherine Metzger

March 21, 2019

Bibliography
1941
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 194-195, no. 291.
1942
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 245, repro. 195.
1945
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 128, repro.
1948
Tietze, Hans. Tintoretto: The Paintings and Drawings. New York, 1948: 381.
1950
Pallucchini, Rodolfo. La giovinezza del Tintoretto. Milan, 1950: 153.
1957
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Venetian School. 2 vols. London, 1957: 1:183.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 201, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 128.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 115, repro.
1970
De Vecchi, Pierluigi. L’opera completa del Tintoretto. Milan, 1970: 101, no. 139.
1972
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 201.
1973
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XVI-XVIII Century. London, 1973: 54-55, fig. 98.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 340, repro.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: 1:471-472, 2:pl. 336, 336A,B.
1982
Pallucchini, Rodolfo, and Paola Rossi. Tintoretto: le opere sacre e profane. 2 vols. Venice, 1982: 1:171, no. 180; 2:fig. 236.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 230, no. 290, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 391, repro.
1999
Meijer, Bert W. “Flemish and Dutch Artists in Venetian Workshops: the Case of Jacopo Tintoretto.” In Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Dürer, Bellini and Titian. Edited by Bernard Aikema and Beverly Louise Brown. Exh. cat. Palazzo Grassi, Venice. Milan, 1999: 143, repro.
2009
Echols, Robert, and Frederick Ilchman. “Toward a New Tintoretto Catalogue, with a Checklist of Revised Attributions and a New Chronology.” In Jacopo Tintoretto: Actas del congreso internacional/Proceedings of the International Symposium, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, February 26-27, 2007. Madrid, 2009: 144, no. S52.
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