Tintoretto’s Little Playhouses

Tintoretto sometimes made little clay or wax figures to use as models for his paintings.
He would clothe them like dolls. Then he put them inside a little box, arranged them like miniature actors in a toy theater, and shined light on them to see just how it fell.

He might draw these little actors or start right out painting them, using the little theater for reference. He liked to make unusual effects with light and this was his way of experimenting.

His wax and clay figures have all been lost, but some of his drawings seem to show these little models. This is a sketch for his Venus, Vulcan, and Mars, now in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich. It looks very much like a doll-house study.

Tintoretto drawing
And here is the finished picture.

Tintoretto Venus
What is going on? Venus has committed adultery with Mars, who is hiding under the bed and trying to hush the dog. Her husband, old Vulcan, is suspicious. That circle behind him is a mirror with his reflection.

To perfect his little doll, did Tintoretto finally use a real girl as a model for this beautiful Venus?


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11 Responses to Tintoretto’s Little Playhouses

  1. iondanu says:

    I would say they are very realistical, no matter who the author… and that a good idea, to uso little models like that…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Sorry, Danu. I decided to change the post when I found the sketch by Tintoretto. But the subject is the same. I’ll do another post on those Greco dolls sometime.
    Did you ever make use of those wooden drawing dolls they sell, with all the articulations?

  3. erikatakacs says:

    Weird and slightly disgusting theme…but beautifully executed, once I can get over what is he checking on the sheet…

  4. 100swallows says:

    It IS disgusting, isn’t it? I think I wouldn’t have chosen this picture if I hadn’t found just the drawing to go with it.
    Maybe I should have stopped with the drawing. That play of those two figures is really suggestive. You might wonder if he made the drawing and then tried to come up with a subject for it and something for those two to be doing.
    Do you think he had a living model for the Venus? I’d say he didn’t–that she was drawn out of his head, from memory, though the pose looks like one a model could hold easily, except for that lifted arm.

  5. kimiam says:

    This is brilliant for laying out overall composition. Didn’t think of this use.

    I bought one of those little wooden figures for my daughter and it did offer some movement, and its always nice to consider proportions. you would have to combine that doll with knowlege of real movment and positioning of the human form for it to work. It’s stiff. My daughter actually requested we return it to the store because she was unsatisfied with its limitations.

    My guess is no model was used for this paiting because the female is stiff looking. -the torso doesn’t bend enough in the middle.

    When I’m working without a model, I use lots of images, look at my own sculptures sitting around me, sometimes look in a mirror, ask my kids to hold their arms a certain way, use my husband’s hands as model and use a book called “virtual pose” and some is just intutitive…but my sans-model work you can always tell.

    Interesting subject, although I agree with you guys, disturbing. Puts you right into very serious marital issue that non-gods experience.

    Swallows, art models we hire use a staff or rod to hold an arm in raised position. They can hold the pose for short time without the rod when you’re detailing the hands and wrists.

  6. 100swallows says:

    I’m like your daughter, kimiam. I think I would have tried to use that wooden figure a couple of times, then dumped it. But I guess we have all twisted clay figures around to get ideas for postures. I’m sure you’re right–Tintoretto didn’t use a model here. The girl is too streamlined and yes, a little faulty. When you say “my sans-model work you can always tell”–do you mean it is “inferior”? I have always been bothered by mistakes in modelling too but don’t you think excessive realism is almost as bad? I prefer a spirited imagined figure, faults and all, to a highly realistic one. It’s much harder to be pretty than to be correct.
    I know about the pole models use.

  7. This was posted a long time ago – but are you aware of any journal articles/monographs on this subject? Correggio, Poussin and quite a few other artists are described as doing this. Possibly more common than we assume as a method for painting invented ‘historical’ subjects.

    • 100swallows says:

      I saw a special exhibition of Tintoretto’s work at the Prado Museum of Madrid in 2007 and bought the wonderful catalog. One of the interesting articles is called “Michelangelo and Tintoretto: Disegno and Drawing”, by Federick Ilchman and Edward Saywell. On the preparatory drawing for Tintoretto’s Venus and Vulcan, they say “the heads in the shape of an egg indicate that both figures are studies of manikins carefully posed.” Farther on, they say: “Ridolfi states, for example, that the artist made little figures of wax and clay, dressed them in cloth, and situated them in ‘little houses in perspective in wood or cardboard, setting candles by the windows, in that way introducing light and shadow’”.
      “A quarter of a century later, Boschini echoes this explanation and underlines the theatrical conception of the pictorial narrations of Tintoretto.”

      Besides the works of Carlo Ridolfi and Boschini, they mention in a footnote the relatively recent work by Lucy Whitaker (1997). “ In the light of those early descriptions she comments concisely (p. 185) on Tintoretto’s way of working.”

      Lucy Whitaker, “Tintoretto’s Drawings after Sculpture and His Workshop Practice”, in The Sculptured Object: 1400-1700. Stuart Curie and Petra Motture (eds,) Aldershot, 1997, pp.177-200.

      There are many works by Marco Boschini and Carlo Ridolfi published between 1660 and 1676 on painting and Tintoretto. I have no idea if they have been translated.

      Probably you know all these but that’s all I can offer since I haven’t pursued this subject since the exhibition.

      Un saludo

  8. Lilian Rosenstreich says:

    I realize that this post is old, but I’m wondering if any of you has heard the story that Tintoretto would get advice from the Rabbis in Venice on his Old Testament themes. Thanks!

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Lilian. I wouldn’t be surprised that this were true but one would have to find the source of the story. It’s hard to imagine now just how much Old Testament knowledge was common in those Christian times. Many of the paintings dealt with Old Testament episodes that few know today. Of course the Renaissance looked back at the great patriarchs and biblical figures. Look at Dante’s afterlife and of course Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. Many have wondered whether some learned cardinal didn’t give him the outline for his ceiling paintings, or at least advise him on the scenes he created. Why precisely those?

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