In 1559, following an increasing number of official commissions, Tintoretto was appointed portraitist to the Republic of Venice, a position previously held by Titian. Over the course of the next four decades, he secured the patronage of the city’s officials as well as leading figures among the intelligentsia. He was admired for not only the quality of his work but also the speed of his execution. In a letter of 1548, Andrea Calmo praised Tintoretto’s ability to capture a likeness from nature in a mere half hour. Although the artist is better known now as a painter of large religious and mythological works, his ability as a portraitist won him great acclaim amongst his contemporaries, with Gian Paolo Lomazzo describing him as ‘ritrattista d’eterna fama’ (‘a portraitist of eternal fame’) (G.P. Lomazzo, Trattato dell’arte della pittura, Milan, 1584, p. 434).
This work is a characteristic example of Tintoretto’s portraiture, which typically featured a restrained colour palette and simplicity of pose and setting. The sitter is depicted three-quarter-length, standing against a dark neutral background. The man’s body, dressed in black, is almost indistinguishable from his surroundings. By contrast, his carefully modelled face is bathed in light. Characteristic specks of white are reflected in his eyes, adding an emotional intensity and sense of immediacy to his gaze. Tintoretto was concerned with the individualisation of the sitter and light was used as a tool to focus the viewer’s attention on the sitter’s face. However, as with many of the artist’s portraits, the sitter’s identity remains obscure. The simplicity of Tintoretto’s portraits, exemplified in this work, was radical at the time and was emulated by later artists such as Velázquez.
The present work once belonged to the imperial collection of the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the senior Swabian branch of the House of Hohenzollern. Swabia was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1850 and formed part of the newly-created Province of Hohenzollern. The family had a significant collection of art that was primarily built up by Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, later Carol I of Romania (1839-1914). Carol’s interest in the arts derived from his friendship with the art historian Anton Springer (1825-1891), under whom he studied at Bonn University. It is possible that Carol acquired this painting in the second half of the 19th century.