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Léon Cogniet – Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter

16 Nov

Léon Cogniet, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1843

William Michael Rossetti, the brother of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, wrote an essay about Tintoretto in 1911 in which he mentions a well-known tale about the great painter and his beloved daughter. The Italian Renaissance painter Tintoretto absolutely adored his daughter Marietta who was also known as Tintoretta and when she passed away at the age of thirty in 1590 the great painter was so grief-stricken, tormented to the point of delirious, that he decided to paint her portrait as she was lying dead in bed. He couldn’t part with her so he captured her delicate features for the last time. This dramatic, eerie scene, which may or may not be true, fired the imagination of many Romantic painters and the version that I love the most is this one by the French painter Léon Cogniet. He was also an art teacher and he even married one of his students, furthermore both his father and his sister were also painters and it is a shame that this painter from such an artistic family stopped painting in 1855 at the age of sixty-one and died practically forgotten in 1880.

As a romantic painter it is easy to see why this sublime scene captivated him so much. Tintoretto is presented as a stern and grief-stricken father who gazes at his beloved daughter’s pale face, oh how lovely she is in death. I can imagine what beautiful verses Edgar Allan Poe would have written had he seen the sight of a famous painter painting the last portrait of his daughter. Surely, the pale face of Marietta is the same face that we see in many portraits of dead women of which I have written about here and here, it’s almost a face of a martyr, pure and tender. Marietta was her father’s pupil and she painted in his workshop, she was also a great singer and played lute, harpsichord and clavichord. Tintoretto simply couldn’t part with such a treasure and so he didn’t allow her to marry far away. Instead, he arranged a marriage for her with a local jeweler and silversmith so she would always stay close to him in Venice. You can only imagine then how sad he was when death took her away, knowing how desperately he tried to keep her by his side when she lived.

I won’t comment much about the colours in the painting because both versions I have been able to find are not that great. Also, bellow you can see another version of the same scene by a British Victorian painter Henry Nelson O’Neil. In that version the dead Marietta, with flowers in her red hair, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite maiden and brings to mind the frail and ill Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal; Dante Gabriel Rossetti didn’t paint her as she lay on her deathbed but he did bury a book of sonnets with her.

Henry Nelson O’Neil, Tintoretto Painting His Dead Daughter, 1873