In his sumptuous masterpiece, The Feast of the Marriage at Cana (Paris, Louvre; fig. 1), Paolo Veronese places, just below the figure of Christ, four musicians, each in fact a portrait of one of the leading painters of the day. They are the artist himself, Titian, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano. The inclusion of Bassano, who was at that stage not even resident in Venice, is a powerful testament to the high standing which he enjoyed as one of the greatest Venetian painters of his day. It is thus a fortuitous coincidence that Veronese's commission was executed at the very time, c. 1562-63, that this superb and highly important Adoration of the Shepherds was painted by Jacopo Bassano. Just under a hundred years later, the biographer of Venetian painters, Carlo Ridolfi, would compare him to Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Leonardo, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, citing specifically his sensitivity to nature: "Jacopo da Bassano developed a new manner founded on the force of naturalism, which was uniquely his; this was appreciated not only by cognoscenti but universally....in particular this [found expression] in his depiction of animals so that the ox seems to low, the sheep to bleat, the lion to roar and the cockerel to crow" (C. Ridolfi, Le meraviglie dell'arte, overo le vite de gl' illustri pittori veneti, e dello stato, Venice, 1648, pp. 373-74).
Bassano's intensely expressive response to nature is nowhere better illustrated than in this remarkable Adoration of the Shepherds. Painted on a domestic scale, probably for an important private patron, it is unusual for being signed. The scene is one of humble reverence. At the center is the infant Christ whose young limbs are dramatically set off against a white drapery, which is lifted hesitantly by the exquisitely demure young Mary to reveal the young Savior to the three shepherds. One, a boy clad in an iridescent carmine tunic, the other a middle-aged man dressed in brilliant green who looks across at the youth. Kneeling with a lamb before him, prays an older shepherd, seen from the back, his shirt and silvery grey breeches rendered with emphatic realism. Among the group that converges on the Christ Child, it is typically the animals, the ass and the ox, who come closest, almost nuzzling the baby. Above them a boy crouching on a ledge blows on a torch of embers, alluding no doubt to the light that this holy birth will bring into the world. Further light breaks through the foliage to the right, under which Joseph, clad in deep blue with a bright orange cloak, looks out at us with an almost portrait-like directness. The ensemble is a superb example of Bassano's genius for the portrayal of profound sacramental subjects using a magnificent feeling for color, daring draughtsmanship and a completely authentic feeling for nature, transforming a humble subject into a deeply moving and monumental work of art. The exceptionally fine state of preservation of this painting makes its qualities all the more apparent.
The picture has an illustrious provenance. It was described by Waagen when in the Morrison collection 1854, as "A very bright and clear yet forcible specimen; the local colors lighter than is often the case in his pictures" (G.F. Waagen, op. cit.). It was subsequently lost to scholarly notice until discussed by Ballarin at a symposium at the Cini Foundation in Venice in 1992. Two other versions of this composition are known: one formerly in the Dresden Museum, was destroyed during World War II; the other is in the Bode Museum in Berlin. Neither version is autograph, the attribution alternating between Jacopo's sons, Girolamo and Francesco Bassano.
Ballarin, who first published this painting and then wrote about it at length in the entry for the celebrated 1993 Siècle de Titien exhibition (see above), was the first to recognize its importance as the prototype for a series of renditions of this subject which would be produced throughout the 1560s, culminating in the great Adoration of the Shepherds with St. Victor and St. Corona (Museo Civico, Bassano; fig. 2), painted for the high altar of S. Giuseppe in Bassano in 1568. Ballarin compared the present painting to another Adoration of the Shepherds now in the Galleria Corsini, Rome of c. 1563 (fig. 3), with which he stressed it should be compared in order to date it. The two pictures share a similar expressive power of color and a comparable manner of drawing, as seen, for example, in the faces of the shepherds. They are also alike in the use of two light sources, but in the present picture the clearer, more transparent light which serves to unify the composition is even more varied, subtle and beautiful. The picture is also more idyllic in mood: whereas the Corsini Adoration, a boy crouches at right with his back to the Holy Family--perhaps alluding to those who turn away from Christ--in the present picture, attention is fully focused on the Savior, imbuing the scene with a purer devotional spirit. The tousled grey hair, patched trousers and shoes of the shepherd kneeling on the ground are rendered with the same great naturalism and optical truth as the textures of the animals and other surfaces. The face of Joseph in the present painting, set off against a pale blue sky, is painted with the same fidelity to truth as if it were a portrait. It is made up of juxtaposed touches of pink, ochre, white, red-brick, blue, warm brown and black, like a drawing in colored chalk, similar to the head of St Jerome at the foot of the Cross in the Crucifixion of 1562 in the Museo Civico, Treviso. The quality of light and color seen in the present Adoration of the Shepherds relates it to Jacopo's works datable to c. 1562-63, at a time when the artist was moving away from his Mannerist phase towards the style of his later period--the classical time of his pastorales (Ballarin, 1993, op. cit., p. 598).
Jacopo Bassano, known as such because he was born in the town of Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto, was the son of a provincial painter, Francesco, and after working with him was sent to Venice where he trained with Bonifazio de' Pitati. In Venice he would have been exposed to the work of Titian and Pordenone, whose influence is apparent in early works such as the Supper at Emmaus (Fort Worth, Kimbell Museum) of 1538. In the 1540s Pordenone's influence--seen in the tendency to crowd figures into a curve in the foreground--is combined with a Lombard naturalism perhaps inspired by Savoldo and a colorism reminiscent of Lorenzo Lotto. By 1540, Jacopo had returned to live in his native Bassano where he would remain for the rest of his life. However, he traveled frequently to Venice and was clearly abreast of the current artistic trends there. His works from the 1540s, such as the Flight into Egypt (Norton Simon Collection, Pasadena), are among the most sophisticated produced by any Venetian artist at the time. Later on in this decade, Jacopo became strongly influenced by Mannerism, presumably through engravings by Andrea Schiavone after Parmigianino, as well as exposure to the work of Francesco Salviati who was active in Venice. However, he never lost his deep connection with nature, as is evident in the superlative Two Hunting Dogs (Paris, Louvre) painted c. 1548. By the late 1550s, Bassano began to explore the dramatic possibilities of landscape and the pastoral more intently with works such as the Annunciation to the Shepherds (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), dated c. 1558. By the early 1560s Bassano freed himself from Mannerist preoccupations, returning to a new objectivity and classicism with compositions based upon the unifying power of light. The present painting is a key work in this development in Bassano's oeuvre, and also epitomizes his unwavering embrace of nature and naturalism. This aspect of his art clearly found favor with Venetian collectors, given the large quantities of workshop variants of his pastoral themes. Jacopo would develop this fascination with nature even further with the virtual invention of pastoral genre painting, in which themes such as The Four Seasons and the Return of the Prodigal Son would seemingly become pretexts for the depiction of the working people, animals and landscapes which the artist would have seen every day in his native Bassano. This was an entirely revolutionary approach, paralleled in Northern Europe by the work of Pieter Breugel the Elder. As with Breugel, these genre scenes became extremely popular and numerous versions and variants were produced by his sons and the workshop well into the 17th century.
Perhaps because of his physical seclusion in Bassano, Jacopo, though greatly admired by his contemporaries in Venice, found it hard to emerge from the shadow cast by Titian and Veronese. Yet in his own time, he influenced major international artists such as El Greco, who lifted the trope of the boy blowing on embers from the present painting to produce genre paintings of that subject himself (fig. 4). Bassano's Adoration of the Shepherds would also reverberate in the work of Caravaggio, whose Madonna di Loreto of c.1604-1606 in The Church of Sant' Agostino in Rome (fig. 5) shows humbly dressed elderly peasant kneeling before the Virgin in a pose similar to the older shepherd in the present picture.
Though his works are found in every great public collection, Jacopo Bassano's true importance was for the first time only properly reassessed in the monographic exhibition held in Bassano del Grappa and Fort Worth in 1992, the fourth centenary of Jacopo's death. This major Adoration of the Shepherds is not only a beautiful work of art in its own right, but a seminal work in the development of one of the greatest painters of 16th-century Venice.
(fig. 4) El Greco, El Soplón (Boy lighting a candle), Christie's, New York, 19 April 2007, lot 61.
(fig. 2) Jacopo Bassano, Adoration of the Shepherds, Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico De Agostini Picture Library The Bridgeman Art Library.
(fig. 3) Jacopo Bassano, Adoration of the Shepherds, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica Palazzo Corsini, Rome Italy Alinari The Bridgeman Art Library.
(fig. 5) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio Madonna of Loreto, Chiesa di San Agostino, Rome, Italy The Bridgeman Art Library.
(fig. 1) Paolo Veronese, detail from The Wedding at Cana, 1562-1563. The Louvre, Paris, Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY.