This painting, which came to light in 1989, is a major addition to the work of Jacopo Bassano. One of the four leading mid–to–late 16th–century Venetian painters, Jacopo is less well–known than are his contemporaries Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. Only with the exhibition of his work in his native town of Bassano del Grappa in 1992 did the artist finally get the recognition he deserves. Aside from the quality and variety of his production, Bassano had the most extraordinary development of any 16th–century Venetian master except Titian. After modest beginnings, Bassano's work exploded into greatness with a series of pictures dating from the 1540s, which demonstrated his true measure as an artist. He overcame his provincial isolation and kept abreast of artistic trends by studying prints by or after other masters such as Raphael. Bassano's mannerist compositions of the 1540s and 1550s, with their rich color and animated figures, gave way to the expressive lighting and more genre–like character of the works of the 1560s. Thereafter, Bassano's art increasingly emphasized figures of peasants and their animals. With their dark tonality, flickering brushwork, and somber mood, the best of his late pictures approach Rembrandt.
As we learn from the painter's account book, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes was ordered in April 1545 by the Venetian governor of Bassano, Pietro Pizzamano. Returning to Venice later that same year, the patron took his picture with him, where, in 1547, Titian copied it for the background of an altarpiece he painted. In The Miraculous Draught of Fishes Jacopo typically drew on a print source for the composition—Ugo da Carpi's chiaroscuro woodcut of the same subject. The print in turn reproduces (in reverse) Raphael's great tapestry cartoon of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes of c. 1515, which, with the other cartoons in the series, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Though relying here, as elsewhere, on a visual source, Jacopo nevertheless transformed the print he took as a point of departure. The aesthetic appeal of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes lies in the way the brilliant hues of rose red, ocher, and green are set off against the broad expanse of blue water. Jacopo's colorful tableau, extending across the width of the canvas, has an almost vertiginous effect, in which the play of gestures and expressions of Christ, Peter, and Andrew on the left contrasts with the denser grouping of Zebedee and his sons James and John on the right. Uniting the two groups of apostles is the dramatic form of Andrew's billowing cape, a signature motif of the artist. Bassano further enlivened the composition through the careful observation of nature, reflected in Zebedee's oaring, the fish struggling in the net, and the view of his native town in the upper right.
(Text by David Alan Brown, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)