During the mid-sixteenth century, Jacopo Tintoretto, aided by his workshop, supplied more pictures for the Venetian state than any other artist. In competition at different points with Titian and Veronese, Tintoretto thrived, appreciating the value of the portrait as a means to promote and publicise his work: he offered his services widely as a portraitist, serving to spread his name throughout the city and beyond. However, his skill lay not simply in knowing how to manoeuvre his way through this most competitive market; he was, first and foremost, a highly adept portraitist.
While Tintoretto’s early portraits show a clear debt to Titian, he soon developed a distinctive style characterised by a greater immediacy and naturalness. It permitted him not simply to produce a likeness of his sitter, but to explore an individual’s character and psychological depth with deceptive ease. In 1559, he was appointed portraitist to the Republic of Venice, a position previously held by Titian, and he subsequently painted many members of the political and intellectual elite of the Republic. Praise from his contemporaries was not lacking: in a letter of 1548, Andrea Calmo eulogised Tintoretto’s ability to capture a likeness from nature in a mere half hour, while Gian Paolo Lomazzo described him as ‘ritrattista d’eterna fama’ (‘a portraitist of eternal fame’) (G.P. Lomazzo, Trattato dell’arte della pittura, Milan, 1584, p. 434).
The details of the full provenance of this portrait are yet to be established. A partially torn label on the reverse shows that it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the nineteenth century, though the catalogue number and date of this exhibition are missing. The dimensions, and description of the sitter, do however correspond to a Tintoretto lent to the 1884 exhibition by Frederick Richards Leyland, a shipowner, collector and key patron of the arts. Leyland commissioned work from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the latter designing the renowned Peacock Room at Leyland’s residence at 49 Prince’s Gate, London. Whistler himself was noted as a great admirer of Tintoretto, calling The Origin of the Milky Way (London, National Gallery) ‘the greatest picture in the world’ (C. Colbert, Haunted Visions. Spiritualism and American Art, Philadelphia, 2011, p. 145). It is perhaps not surprising that Tintoretto’s enduring sense of modernity appealed to the likes of Leyland and Whistler.