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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Giorgione was one of the first painters to paint largely private commissions

Perhaps because of this, only very few works are known to be his, although between 20 and 40 are credited to him.

Giorgione painted in Venice, and was a student of Giovanni Bellini, alongside Titian. Some sources speculate Titian was his student.

After Giorgione's death Titian finished some of his paintings, which confuses attribution further.

Giorgione, like his Florentine contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, used a technique called sfumato. Literally meaning "smoke", sfumato gives a soft or blurred transition between colours leading to a more life-like image. Another trademark of his work was his use of reflection and light.

A story from Paolo Pino's Dialogo di Pittura tells of him painting a figure from behind, but reflected in a stream, some polished armour, and a mirror so the viewer can see every angle. Although this painting no longer exists, you can see this technique in Portrait of an Archer, where the archer's hand is seen mirrored in his polished cuirass.

Giorgione was a pioneer of portraiture. His painting Laura, one of the few definite attributions, shows a young bride with glowing skin and a fur mantel.

The painting seems modern in its style and technique. As well as portraying a likeness, this portrait captures the pensive mood of a young woman embarking on her journey into adulthood.

In his Portrait of a Young Man, the sitter looks over his shoulder directly at the viewer, as if in challenge. The Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, attributed to Giorgione and Titian, seems to seek to show the determined character of the sitter, rather than just to flatter him.

La Vecchia, The Old Woman, unflinchingly shows the ravages of time, but also shows the beauty and dignity of the subject. His Self-Portrait as David, now much damaged, shows the artist with his chin raised, defiantly staring out of the canvas.

Giorgione's religious and allegorical paintings show his compositional skills. Adoration of the Shepherds unusually puts the shepherds in the centre of the image, with the Holy Family to the right of the canvas. On the left a landscape recedes into the distance.

Such landscapes are a feature of Italian art at the time. Castles, trees and rugged mountains all appear in many of Giorgione's works, such as his altarpiece Castelfranco Madonna. His The Tempest is thought by some to be the first true landscape painting in Western art history.

This painting shows a storm over a city, and in the foreground a soldier stands watch while a partially nude woman breastfeeds an infant. The subtle lighting of the painting, and the enigma of the subject, which does not appear either in the bible or classical mythology, has fascinated viewers for centuries.

In Sleeping Venus, attributed to Giorgione and Titian, this landscape echoes the pose and curves of the recumbent goddess. At the time this was an unusual subject for a painting. Sleeping Venus and Pastoral Concert (now widely attributed to Titian) were innovative for the period in their frank depiction of female beauty. Needless to say, the trend for painting beautiful nude women quickly caught on, and has endured.

Giorgione used oil paints, which are ubiquitous now but had only just started to be used in Italy in the renaissance. He would paint from life and his technique was described as pittura sanza disegno, or painting without drawing, again innovative for the time and in contract with the more linear Florentine style.

This technique gives his paintings, in particular his landscapes, a fluid, dreamlike quality. His compositions are often described as "poetic" because of this fluidity, and his subtle use of light and colour.

Little is known of Giorgione's life, and nowadays he is often forgotten, outshone by his colleague (or perhaps pupil) Titian. This is a shame, as Giorgione was a true innovator in terms of technique, subject matter and composition.