This extraordinary picture—deeply expressive and almost unique in showing the Baptism of Christ as occurring late at night—is the last known work by the great Venetian painter Jacopo Bassano, who left it unfinished when he died in 1592. It was viewed by his heirs as his artistic testament and was retained by them for more than a century. To our eyes, the altarpiece’s unfinished (non finito) style seems a crucial step towards modernism, to be compared with, for example, Goya's "black paintings." Bassano explores an expressive intensity—dark in mood as in the palette—that is a direct and deeply personal response to Titian's late pictures. He interprets the baptism of Christ not as a sunny event in a pastoral landscape but as the tragic opening of Christ's Passion.
Spectral figures of Christ, Saint John the Baptist, and three angels are shown in a nocturnal landscape. John leans forward and, turning back, baptizes Christ, who is also depicted leaning forward, as though shedding his scarlet robe. His tormented face expresses foreknowledge of his tragic destiny. The three angels serve as counterpoints: one, holding Christ's robe, gazes at him ecstatically while a second angel looks upward, at the mystical apparition of a dove in the black sky. The horizon is lit by the rays of the setting sun.
This extraordinary picture—deeply expressive and unique in Renaissance painting for showing the Baptism of Christ as occurring at night—is the last known work by the great Venetian painter Jacopo Bassano, who left it unfinished when he died in 1592. It was viewed by his heirs as his artistic testament and was retained by them rather than completed and delivered, as would have been the normal practice. They evidently felt that, as in the case of Michelangelo's and Titian's unfinished works, the picture fully expressed Jacopo's intentions. The picture is first listed in a transcription of the postmortem inventory of April 27, 1592 of the works of art in the studio of Jacopo Bassano. Number 64 records "Il battefimo di N.S. da S. Gio. Battifta, cioè una Tavola d' altare sbozzata" (The Baptism of Our Lord by Saint John the Baptist, unfinished). The picture remained unfinished and in family hands in Bassano. In 1648, Carlo Ridolfi records: "Si veggono etiãdio quefte Pitture nella propria habitatione hor poffeduta dal Signor Carlo fuo Pronipote erudito nella Pittura, e nelle buone lettere . . . Vna pala del battefimo di Chrifto, che fù vna delle ultime opera fue non finite . . . ." (In his house, now owned by Sig. Carlo his grand-nephew and knowledgeable in painting and letters . . . [there is] an altarpiece of the baptism of Christ that was one of [Jacopo's] last works, unfinished). All trace of the picture was lost until 1931, when the painting surfaced in Munich, with the art dealer Schnackenberg (Fröhlich-Bum 1931).
The idea of "non finito" (unfinished) as an expressive style rather than a mere description of the physical state of a work of art originates in the Renaissance. Ridolfi describes of Bassano's late pictures as "done in stabs (copli) of color." In the seventeenth century a sketched-in work might actually be preferred to a picture brought to a high degree of finish. To our eyes, this "non finito" seems a crucial step towards modernism, and the comparison of this work by Bassano with, for example, Goya's "black paintings" is inevitable. Comparisons with the last paintings of Caravaggio as well as with Rembrandt have been made. However, to a Renaissance viewer the analogy was, instead, with what they would have read in Pliny's Natural History (XXV.xl. 144–46): "It is also a very unusual and memorable fact that the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures such as the Iris of Aristides, the Tyndarus Children of Nicomachus, the Medea of Timomachus and the Aphrodite of Apelles which we have mentioned, are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists' actual thoughts, and in the midst of approval's beguilement we feel regret that the artist's hand while engaged in the work was removed by death."
What cannot be doubted is that Bassano here explores an expressive intensity—dark in mood as in palette—that is a direct and deeply personal response to Titian's late pictures (in particular Titian's two versions of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence and his unfinished Pietà, painted to decorate his own funerary chapel). The pose of Christ is as though taken from a Way to Calvary and this analogy must have been on Bassano's mind.
[Keith Christiansen 2010]
the artist, Bassano del Grappa (until d. 1592; inv., 1592, no. 64); by descent to his great-grandson, Carlo Scajaro, Bassano del Grappa (by 1648–d. 1651); his sisters, Marietta and Anna Scajaro, Bassano del Grappa (1651–73; sold through Marietta's husband, Amadio Grossa, with six other pictures for 300 ducats to Stecchini); Giacomo and Pietro Stecchini, Romano d'Ezzelino, Bassano, and Venice (from 1673); Giacomo Ignazio Stecchini, Venice (in ca. 1775); ?Guarini-Torelli collection, Forlì (in 1893); [Schnackenberg, Munich, by 1931–37; sold to Huldschinsky]; Paul Huldschinsky, Santa Monica, Calif. (1937–d. 1947; his estate, New York, until 1964; sold for $10,000 to Virch); Claus Virch, New York, later Paris (1964–2009); private collection (from 2009)
Munich. Julius Böhler. "Altvenezianischer Malerei," 1931, no. 3 (lent by W. Schnackenberg, Munich).
Bassano del Grappa. Museo Civico. "Jacopo Bassano, c. 1510–1592," September 5–December 6, 1992, no. 79 (lent by a private collection).
Fort Worth, Tex. Kimbell Art Museum. "Jacopo Bassano, c. 1510–1592," January 23–April 25, 1993, no. 79.
Paris. Musée du Louvre. "Titien, Tintoret, Véronèse . . . Rivalités à Venise," September 17, 2009–January 4, 2010, no. 86.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art [The Met Breuer]. "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible," March 18–September 4, 2016, unnumbered cat. (colorpl. 21).
Inventario de' quadri di Pittura ritrovati nella Casa del q. Eccellente Sig. Giacomo da Ponte . . . April 27, 1592, no. 64 [published in Giambatista Verci, "Notizie intorno alla vita e alle opere de' pittori scultori e intagliatori della città di Bassano," Venice, 1775, p. 94], as an unfinished altarpiece depicting the Baptism of Christ ["Il battesimo di N.S. da S. Gio. Battista, cioè una Tavola d'altare sbozzata"].
Carlo Ridolfi. Le maraviglie dell'arte. Venice, 1648, part 1, p. 389, records it in the collection of Signor Carlo, descendant of the artist, in the artist's house in Bassano; refers to it as an altarpiece, one of Jacopo's last works, and unfinished.
E. Calzini and G. Mazzatinti. Guida di Forlì. Forlì, 1893, p. 29, list "il battesimo di Gesù del 'Bassano'" among paintings in the palazzo Guarini-Torelli, possibly this work.
Detlev von Hadeln inLe maraviglie dell'arte. Ed. Carlo Ridolfi and Detlev von Hadeln. Vol. 1, Berlin, 1914, p. 401 n. 7, tentatively identifies the picture mentioned by Ridolfi [see Ref. 1648] with the one listed in the artist's posthumous inventory [see Ref. 1592].
L[ili]. Fröhlich-Bum. "Unbekannte Gemälde des Jacopo Bassano." Belvedere 10, no. 4 (1931), pp. 121–22, pl. 71, as with G. [sic?] Schnackenberg, Munich; places it in Bassano's final period, dating it between 1572 and 1582 and finding it close to the artist's "Entombment" of 1574 in Santa Maria in Vanzo, Padua; believes that the nocturnal setting misled Ridolfi and Verci [who was in fact merely reproducing the inventory of 1592] into thinking that the work was unfinished.
A[ugust]. L. Mayer. Ausstellung altvenezianischer Malerei. Exh. cat., Julius Böhler. Munich, 1931, unpaginated foreword, p. 1, no. 3, calls it unfinished and refers to it as one of the most beautiful achievements of Bassano's late period.
Giuseppe Fiocco. "Ausstellung venezianischer Kunst in München." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst 65 (1931–32), p. 159, sees the influence of Titian.
Otto Benesch. "Meisterzeichnungen aus dem oberitalienischen Kunstkreis—II." Die graphischen Künste, n.s., 1 (1936), p. 60.
Edoardo Arslan. I Bassano. Milan, 1960, vol. 1, p. 357, includes it on his list of workshop and wrongly attributed works; rejects the attribution to Bassano, finding the handling too heavy; does not know its current whereabouts.
Simona Savini-Branca. Il collezionismo veneziano nel '600. Padua, 1964, p. 261.
Theodore Rousseau in "Ninety-fifth Annual Report of the Trustees, for the Fiscal Year 1964–1965." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 24 (October 1965), p. 58, lists it as an anonymous loan to the Museum.
Alessandro Ballarin. "La vecchiaia di Jacopo Bassano: le fonti e la critica." Atti dell'Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 125 (1966–67), pp. 185–86, accepts it as by Jacopo and as the work mentioned by Ridolfi.
W. R. Rearick. "Jacopo Bassano's Last Painting: The Baptism of Christ." Arte veneta 21 (1967), pp. 104, 106–7, colorpl. 118, accepts it as the work listed in the inventory of 1592 and mentioned by Ridolfi in 1648, and calls it unfinished.
Rodolfo Pallucchini. Bassano. Bologna, 1982, pp. 54–55.
W. R. Rearick inDizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 32, Rome, 1986, p. 187, as in a private collection, New York.
Livia Alberton Vinco da Sesso. "La raccolta di 'Quadri di eccellente pittura' della famiglia Stecchini e il fondo di dipinti bassaneschi degli ultimi discendenti dei Dal Ponte: episodi di collezionismo bassanese tra la fine del '600 e l'inizio del '700." Bollettino del Museo Civico di Bassano, n.s., nos. 13–15 (1992–94), pp. 206–10, 212, 220–22, fig. 29, identifies this work with "una palla di San Giovanni Battista che battezza nostro Signore" included in receipts recording the sale of seven paintings by Amadio Grossa, husband of Marietta Scajaro, Carlo Scajaro's sister, to Giacomo and Pietro Stecchini in 1673 for 300 ducats.
Luciana Larcher Crosato. "Jacopo Bassano." Kunstchronik 46 (March 1993), p. 128, pl. 5, remarks that it represents the highest and most extreme point of Bassano's art.
W. R. Rearick inJacopo Bassano, c. 1510–1592. Ed. Beverly Louise Brown and Paola Marini. Exh. cat., Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa. Fort Worth, 1993, pp. 170–71, 452–53, no. 79, ill. (color) [Italian ed., Bologna, 1992, pp. CLXXXVII–VIII, 206–7, no. 79, ill. (color)], believes that it was probably commissioned by a provincial church southwest of Bassano and that a copy by Jacopo's son Gerolamo (Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona) was substituted for it, with Jacopo's unfinished painting "kept by the family as a revered relic of the old master's final creative effort"; notes that no other depictions of this subject by Jacopo are known since 1541.
Alessandro Ballarin. Jacopo Bassano. Vol. 1, Jacopo Bassano: Scritti, 1964–1995. Cittadella (Padua), 1995, part 1, pp. 64–65, fig. 178 (color detail); part 2, pp. 471–72, reprints the text of Ballarin 1966–67.
Bernard Aikema. Jacopo Bassano and His Public: Moralizing Pictures in an Age of Reform ca. 1535–1600. Princeton, 1996, pp. 150–51, 203–4 nn. 306–8, fig. 127, colorpl. XII.
Paolo Berdini. The Religious Art of Jacopo Bassano: Painting as Visual Exegesis. Cambridge, 1997, pp. 109–10, 115–16, 118–20, 171–72 n. 13, colorpl. V, dates it 1592, calling it Bassano's last picture; discusses the unprecedented nocturnal setting, arguing that it is meant to connect the event with Christ's Passion and noting that Saint Paul [Romans 6:5–6] refers to baptism as a "likeness of Christ's death".
Katherine A. McIver. "Review of Berdini 1997." Sixteenth Century Journal 29 (Summer 1998), p. 531.
William Roger Rearick inJacopo dal Ponte al Museo di Bassano. 2001, p. 31.
Old Master & British Pictures. Christie's, London. July 6, 2007, p. 198, under no. 224.
Arturo Galansino inTitien, Tintoret, Véronèse . . . Rivalités à Venise. Ed. Vincent Delieuvin et al. Exh. cat., Musée du Louvre. Paris, 2009, pp. 376, 390–92, 437 nn. 155–59, no. 86, ill. (color).
Stefania Mason. "L'inventario di Gerolamo Bassano e l'eredità della bottega." Notiziario degli Amici dei Musei e dei Monumenti di Bassano del Grappa, special number, (December 2009), pp. 28–30, 40 n. 54.
Carlo Corsato. "Il 'Battesimo di Cristo' e l'eredità del 'brand' Bassano nelle botteghe dei figli di Jacopo." Verona illustrata no. 24 (2011), pp. 65–70, 74, 79, colorpl. III, figs. 44, 46, 50, 54, 58 (overall and details), defines the term "sbozzata" as it appears in Jacopo's inventory [see Ref. Bassano 1592] and does not think that this painting fulfills contemporary ideas of its meaning; believes that it would have been sent to the patron as an acceptable altarpiece; considers it to be a finished work and compares it to the version now in the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona (for which he provides incorrect measurements), which he feels is more likely to be the "sbozzo" in the inventory; notes that the inventory does not mention that the action has a nocturnal setting and that the Verona version is less nocturnal in character; mentions another version (Simon Dickinson, London) that he believes is based on that in Verona and is a "ricordo" (record); speculates that the MMA painting was sent to a member of the Soranzo family and quotes Marco Boschini on a painting of the subject at the Ca' Soranza in Venice [p. 74 n. 3; the passage describes a God the Father as part of the composition].
Andrea Bayer, Michael Gallagher, and Silvia Centeno. "Jacopo Bassano's 'Baptism of Christ'." Artibus et Historiae no. 68 (2013), pp. 83–103, ill. (color, overall and details, before treatment, after cleaning, after treatment, paint cross-sections, x-radiograph, and infrared reflectogram), trace the provenance, detail the technique and treatment, and discuss the issue of the unfinished state of the painting.
Andrea J. Bayer in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2012–2014." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 72 (Fall 2014), p. 33, ill. (color).
Michel Hochmann. Colorito: La technique des peintres vénitiens à la Renaissance. Turnhout, 2015, pp. 96, 119 n. 67, p. 127, figs. 58 (color), 59 (detail).
Andrea Bayer inUnfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art [The Met Breuer]. New York, 2016, pp. 28–29, 261 n. 48, p. 277, fig. 8 (color detail), colorpl. 21.
Michael Gallagher inUnfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art [The Met Breuer]. New York, 2016, pp. 46–47, 265 n. 8.
David Bomford inUnfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art [The Met Breuer]. New York, 2016, p. 51.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 279, no. 197, ill. pp. 197, 279 (color).
This unfinished altarpiece was kept by the family of the artist after his death in 1592. A copy by Jacopo's son Gerolamo now in the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, may have been painted as a replacement for the unknown commissioner of the work, probably a provincial church (Rearick 1993).
Another version of the picture was included in a sale at Christie's, London, July 6, 2007, no. 224, not sold (as Attributed to Jacopo Bassano and Studio, 65 3/4 x 52 1/2 in.). It was with Simon C. Dickinson Ltd, London, in 2009.
Michelangelo Muraro (Il libro secondo di Francesco e Jacopo dal Ponte, Bassano, 1992, pp. 106, 408, no. 120) records an earlier version of this subject painted by Jacopo in 1541 (lost).
Artist: Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) (Italian, Bassano del Grappa ca. 1510–1592 Bassano del Grappa)Date: ca. 1565Medium: Pastel with red chalk on laid light brown paper (formerly blue)Accession: 1999.390On view in:Not on view
Artist: Attributed to Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) (Italian, Bassano del Grappa ca. 1510–1592 Bassano del Grappa)Date: 1510–92Medium: Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, highlighted with white, on green-washed paperAccession: 08.227.28On view in:Not on view
Artist: Ascribed to Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) (Italian, Bassano del Grappa ca. 1510–1592 Bassano del Grappa)Date: 1550–1600Medium: Black and colored chalks on blue paper (recto); black chalk (verso)Accession: 62.120.5On view in:Not on view
Artist: Attributed to Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) (Italian, Bassano del Grappa ca. 1510–1592 Bassano del Grappa)Date: ca. 1560Medium: Brush and brown wash, highlighted with white gouache, over traces of black chalk, on faded pale brown-blue paperAccession: 2008.178.1On view in:Not on view