I’m curious to know if you have heard bickering or sensed some tension between competitive artists when they spoke during an art association meeting, while attending a gallery opening or art conference, exhibiting next to each other in an outdoor fair, or participating in a plein air painting event. Those uncomfortable situations sometimes happen, especially when there is a large prize or commission at stake.
That kind of rivalry occurred in the 16th century in Venice, Italy, when three of the greatest masters were vying for patronage from wealthy noblemen, merchants, and members of the clergy. Titian (ca. 1488–1576), Tintoretto (1518–1594), and Veronese (1528–1588) spent almost four decades competing with one another, and the evidence of their rivalry is the theme of an extraordinary exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The show, Titan, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice (March 15 through August 16), explores the artistic exchange between three of the first masters to use oil paints and the degree to which they challenged one another in the execution of large canvases.
Venetian artists were at a disadvantage before the introduction of oil paints because the city’s humid climate made it difficult to create frescoes and panel paintings with water-based materials like egg tempera and plaster. However, when oil painting on canvas was introduced, young Titian took full advantage of the rich colors and textures of the paints, as well as the ability to work on large pieces of lightweight canvas. He was able to sell his pictures to Venetians who were among the wealthiest patrons in all of Europe. Soon young Tintoretto was competing with Titian by working faster and more aggressively, forcing the older artist to be less subtle and detailed in his paintings.
Before long, Veronese started modeling himself after Titian and won commissions in his hometown of Verona and, eventually, in Venice. Then the three artists began to play a game of one-upmanship by painting the same subjects and by showing that one could paint a subject—such as armor—better than the others. Although the rivalry annoyed the three masters, it actually made each of them a better artist. Their productivity, skill, and inventiveness increased rapidly, if only because they had to be better than their competitors.
It would be nice to think that great artists respect and encourage each other, but we know that wasn’t the case in the 16th century, and it isn’t the reality today. Sometimes squabbles and disagreements are damaging, but hopefully a healthy competition will motivate artists to work to their best ability as it did with Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. I’d be curious to know if you have experienced these kinds of stimulating rivalries.
M. Stephen Doherty