The high quality of Christ at the Sea of Galilee has always been recognized. Seascapes are rare in Venetian painting, and here the turbulent waters, with their flickering highlights, as well as the blustering clouds and the play of light on the distant shore, are rendered with a painterly brio that has in retrospect evoked the names of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. The disjunction between the vigor of the landscape and the sketchy and attenuated figure of Christ, apparently unfinished in some passages, contributes to a mystical, almost hallucinatory effect that has been compared to some of Jacopo Tintoretto’s great paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Most scholars have considered the picture to be an autograph work by Tintoretto, and many have ranked it among his masterpieces. Nevertheless, the painting is so fundamentally different from Tintoretto’s art that it can be removed from his autograph oeuvre without hesitation.
The picture has never been located convincingly in Tintoretto’s oeuvre: datings have ranged from August L. Mayer’s 1546/1555, through Rodolfo Pallucchini and Paola Rossi’s 1558/1562 and Terisio Pignatti’s later 1570s, to Tintoretto’s last years, 1591/1594, as favored by Lionello Venturi, Erich von der Bercken, and Pierluigi De Vecchi. Nor has the attribution gone unquestioned.
In 1948, Hans Tietze gave the picture to El Greco, a conclusion reached by Manolis Chatzidakis in 1950 as well. In a lengthy written statement in NGA curatorial files, Tietze and Erika Tietze-Conrat argued convincingly that the essential invention, the figure types, the technique, and the coloring of the picture are alien to Tintoretto at every stage of his career. As the Tietzes noted, Tintoretto’s art is always based primarily on the human figure and conveys a fundamental sense of the underlying structure and mechanics of the body, which is absent here. Moreover, in Tintoretto’s paintings, to quote the Tietzes, water is never “in itself an independent means of expression. . . . It is simply the milieu in which some event takes place. In the Washington picture, the sea is not a detail, but the subject of the painting.” The painting’s unusually thin pictorial technique, employing virtually no impasto, is also uncharacteristic of Tintoretto. On the other hand, while the Tietzes’ attribution to El Greco accords with the picture’s mannerist elements and high quality, the technique, in particular the lack of impasto, is equally inconsistent with that of the Cretan painter.
As the present writer has argued elsewhere, the best explanation for the picture’s peculiar genius lies in an attribution to the Amsterdam-born painter Lambert Sustris during his later career in Venice, a period which has remained mysterious and largely unexplored. Born around 1515, Sustris is recorded in Rome in 1536, and within a year or two he had settled in Venice. His paintings there show him to be extremely versatile, moving comfortably back and forth between the conventions of central Italian mannerism, Titian (in whose studio he is reported to have worked), and northern literalism. In the 1540s he was active as a painter of fresco cycles decorating palaces and villas on the Venetian terraferma, and he seems to have played a role in developing the characteristic domestic decoration style there, especially its landscape components, which combine the Roman antiquarian landscapes of Polidoro da Caravaggio with elements of northern panorama and Venetian pastoral lyricism [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Lambert Sustris, Landscape, 1549/1551, fresco, Lonedo di Lugo di Vicenza, Villa Godi Valmarana, Sala dei Cesari. © Bibliotheca Hertziana / Foto: Bartsch, Tatjana. He is also recorded by early sources as one of the northern artists who worked in Tintoretto’s studio, as well as Titian’s, painting landscapes. Giorgio Vasari’s 1568 Lives implies that Lambert was still alive but no longer in Venice, and his career is not usually discussed beyond this point. However, as first noted by Arthur Peltzer, there are indications that he continued to work in Venice, at least occasionally, for more than three decades and received payments there under the name of “Alberto d’Ollanda” for three official portraits in 1591 that Tintoretto was unable to complete. (Sustris signed paintings as Alberto earlier in his career, and he is identified by the name in at least two documents.) Many direct links between paintings previously attributed to Tintoretto and works by Lambert suggest that during this later phase of his career, Sustris had an association of some kind with Tintoretto. Although the structure of Tintoretto’s studio remains unclear, it seems likely that he had some associates who worked there relatively independently. Northern artists particularly seemed to have gravitated to the Tintoretto bottega. Lambert Sustris may well have been one of them.
The attribution of the Gallery’s painting to Lambert Sustris is based upon strong similarities in works by Lambert to the figure of Christ, the small figures of the apostles, and the landscape. The attenuated figure of Christ, with his rectangular-shaped head, follows the mannerist conventions that Sustris frequently used in his early paintings. Because of the sketchiness of the figure, especially close connections can be found in Lambert’s drawings. For example, in a drawing depicting a Sacrifice to Priapus (Albertina, Vienna) [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Lambert Sustris, Sacrifice to Priapus, 1540s, ink and wash on paper, The Albertina Museum, Vienna. Photo © Albertina, Vienna, a female nude seen from the rear is articulated in exactly the same manner as the figure of Christ, especially in the definition of the back, the shoulders, the calves, and the feet, as well as the distinctive mannerist facial profile. Christ’s exaggeratedly extended finger reflects a morphological trait that appears in the central figure in armor in the Sacrifice to Priapus and numerous other drawings and paintings (see fig. 1) by Sustris. The little figures of the apostles in the boat are analogous to those who populate Lambert’s frescoed landscapes, and even closer to figures in his drawings, where the sketchily rendered faces frequently show the same hollow-eyed, skull-like appearance and summary treatment of the limbs. They are particularly close to a compositional sketch for a Roman triumph (Gabinetto dei Disegni, Uffizi, Florence) [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Lambert Sustris, A Roman Triumph, 1540s, ink and wash, with white heightening, on paper, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi.
The landscape in the Gallery’s picture shows striking similarities to Lambert’s Paduan frescoes (for example, one at the Villa Godi at Lonedo, Lugo di Vicenza; see fig. 1), especially in the treatment of the receding shoreline, the swaths of yellow and green defining the hills in the middle distance, the tree stump, the puffy clouds, and even the boat itself. In addition, the panoramic landscape lying beneath the current painting, though visible only through x-radiography and infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Infrared reflectogram, Circle of Jacopo Tintoretto (Probably Lambert Sustris), Christ at the Sea of Galilee, c. 1570s, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, can also be linked to Lambert’s paintings. As in his Paduan frescoes and other works, the architecture includes both classicizing and contemporary buildings. Among them are several that replicate structures in Lambert’s paintings—for example, a triple-arched bridge with exact counterparts in his fresco cycles. While it is not possible to make judgments about attribution based on the incomplete image of the unfinished portrait painted over the panoramic landscape, what can be seen of the portrait through infrared reflectography is generally consistent with both Lambert’s earlier document portraits and the 1591 paintings by “Alberto d’Ollanda,” while the x-radiographs reveal that it lacks the bold brushwork that Tintoretto typically used to sketch in the structural forms of the head when he began his portraits.
Tintoretto specialists have remained mostly silent about the attribution of the Christ at the Sea of Galilee since it has been linked to Sustris. While the attribution to Sustris cannot be confirmed with certainty, the picture is surely the work of a painter who fits Sustris’s profile: one who was active in Venice in the second half of the cinquecento; probably having some association with Tintoretto and certainly aware of his oeuvre and types; familiar with the iconography of northern painting; and painting in a mode that combines mannerist figure types with the landscape style characteristic of Venetian villa decorations of the 1540s.
Christ’s pose is loosely related to several other paintings from the Tintoretto studio, including two versions of the Raising of Lazarus, datable to 1573 (private collection) and 1576 (Katharinenkirche, Lübeck). The Gallery’s painting can be tentatively dated to around the 1570s on the theory that there must be some relationship among the pictures.
The painting represents one of Christ’s several earthly manifestations following the Resurrection, his appearance on the shore of Lake Galilee on the occasion traditionally known as the second “miraculous draught of fishes.” As recounted in John 21:1–13, seven apostles had fished all night in a boat on Lake Galilee, without success. At dawn, Christ appeared at the shore and told them to cast their nets to the right side of the boat, where the catch would be plentiful. When Peter recognized Christ, he cast himself into the water to swim to the shore. The subject is more frequent in northern than in Italian painting, and the composition of the Washington painting, with its panoramic landscape, is characteristically northern in type. The Gallery’s picture has sometimes been seen as representing Christ walking on the water during a storm, and Peter about to attempt to follow his example, as told in Matthew 14:22–29. Nevertheless, the iconography of the painting as a whole makes it clear that the subject is indeed the occasion described in John 21: Christ is standing on the shore, as evidenced by the rocks and vegetation at his feet; there are seven apostles on the boat (not twelve as in the scene of Christ walking on the water); the apostles are casting the net off the right side of the boat; and the sky suggests that the event takes place at sunrise.
In 16th-century Venice, biblical narrative pictures of this size and format were often hung in the large central halls (portego or sala) of private palaces.
March 21, 2019