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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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Paolo Veronese didn't paint pictures. He painted stories. His brush drew from allegories, myth, and history, and that brought a wealth of richness to every canvas he touched. His paintings were sprawling tales of the society he lived in, so he was adored by Renoir, Delacroix and Rubens.

That's a fan club made of legend, but Veronese wasn't always a Renaissance master. He was born in 16th century Venice, taking his name from his home town of Verona. He created his first painting long before 1541 when he entered an apprenticeship with Antonio Badile, never imagining he might one day become one of the most iconic artists in history.

The Early Years

Veronese's apprenticeship began at the age of 14. His mentor was a leading painter, but he introduced his mentee to more than just art. His young apprentice eventually went on to marry his daughter, Elena. During his first mentorship, the young master learned basic painting techniques, but he also gained an interest in architecture—a fascination that would one day serve his paintings well. Veronese's first known painting and commission was an altarpiece that oozed the style of his teacher. The work was hung in a church chapel. During his adolescence, Mannerism was a popular style, but his fascination with rich hues led him to a more opulent approach to the school. He often created work for churches, but one of his secular paintings, The Family of Darius before Alexander, became one of his grandest works. He moved onto frescoes in the middle of his career, and they quickly drove him to fame.

The Artist's Time in Venice

In the mid-Fifties, Veronese moved to Venice, a vibrant region with a key artistic contingent. Here, he received his first government commission to paint the ceilings of the Hall of the Council of Ten and the Doge's Palace. His love for Michelangelo was obvious in his work, Temptation of St Anthony — a painting that was hung in the cathedral of Mantua. His work for the state represents the beginning of his mature years. The figures in his earliest frescoes seemed to float over their audience, largely thanks to his rich shadows and lush palettes. In 1555, Veronese and Zelotti were called on by the prior of S. Sebastiano to decorate the Palazzo Ducale. The work ultimately received a prize from judges, Titian and Sansovino. More importantly, he won a reputation for being a master among his peers; a title he'd hold onto for centuries after his death.

In 1556, the young painter was hired to paint Feast in the House of Simon — a work that he only completed over a decade later. He produced many minor works during the same era, including frescoes for Villa Barbaro in Maser. He also painted a collaborative work, The Wedding of Cana. This Benedictine commission was to decorate the San Giorgi Monastary in Venice. It covered a sprawling 66 square metres and became as famous for its rare pigments as it did for its artistic skill. During the late Fifties, the renaissance master decorated two shutters of a St Sebastian's organ. This work is known as a demonstration of his finest rhythmic composition. It uses foreshortening to make its figures seemingly leap out of their frescoes — a technique he'd use many times during his career. To achieve foreshortening, the artist must have an intricate understanding of the human form. Veronese gained his knowledge by creating chalk anatomy studies throughout his career.

The late 1550s was a busy period for Veronese. He created several commissioned altarpieces, including a series of Last Suppers. Many of this era's work is hung in the world's finest galleries. The Consecration of Saint Nicholas stands in the London National Gallery. The New York Metropolitan exhibits his more mythological works, including Venus and Mars. The Louvre also exhibits much of Veronese's work, including his 1555 painting, Portrait of a Lady. Many of Veronese's refractory paintings were unsuccessful. Early on, he lacked the composition skills required to handle the ambitious scenes he was attempting, and with no focal point to speak of, they never achieved the inspired luminescence of his later work. He worked hard on his composition, ultimately achieving the incandescence he became known for. Many of his works created a sense of movement by achieving slight diversions across a horizontal axis.

The artist's late 1550s work focused on light, colour, and narrative. Some say the incandescence of this painting was entirely the result of new romance. It was then that he fell in love with and married Elena Badile. The couple had four sons and a daughter. Veronese began painting his first pietta in 1565. Unlike others in the class, his infant's gaze was pointed outwards rather than at the Madonna. During the years between 1565 and 1570, he followed other classic compositions with his own John the Baptist and St Justina. His trip to Rome can probably be attributed to his late Sixties subject matter. During the visit, he studied the Rennaissance Masters. On his return, he experimented with chiaroscuro for The Miracle of Saint Pantaleon.

The Mature Years

Paolo Veronese's Roman Catholic allusions lacked the piousness of his contemporaries. Even his last supper painting, The Feast in the House of Levi, included dwarves, exotic animals, and German soldiers. The artist's narrative work is represented at its best in the painting. It was every bit as controversial as you might imagine, though, so he had to appear at an Inquisition tribunal on serious charges. The Roman Catholic Church was offended by the inclusion of German soldiers, buffoons, and dwarfs as well as the absence of the Virgin Mary. They saw the image as purposeful vilification of the church.

Veronese cited Michelangelo's Judgement fresco as a precedent, but the Inquisition ultimately insisted he alter the painting. Veronese avoided having to spoil his masterpiece by changing the title to "Christ in the House of Levi" and walked free. During the trial, he said, "We painters use the same license as poets and madmen.[…] When I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention." The painting's mise en scene composition was intended to cast a modern meaning onto a religious scene. It expresses the greed, decadence, and materialism so typical of the Venetian Republic of his day. His humanoid creatures were intended to represent the sinners of the gospels.

Veronese's late period received support by powerful aristocrats including the Barbaro family. He collaborated with the famous architect, Andrea Palladio, who referred to his partner as "the most excellent painter." By the 1580s, demand for mythological works fell, so he was often commissioned to create devotional images. Between 1574 and '77, fires and plagues threw Venice into chaos, so he started investing his wealth in land. This is how he came to launch an active studio with his brother and sons. Family life treated the master well. He did much of his work on his own land alongside his sons and apprentices. His work was in high demand—a rare state for an artist of his time. Lawrence Gowing called Veronese the greatest colourist who ever lived thanks to his academic chiaroscuro and the way he merged light, vivid hues, and natural tones. His colouring of shadows drew praise.

During the decade after his death, his family gathered his sketches and drawings together in the hope of giving the world a complete collection of his work. His mannerist style had already travelled all over the world, so many attribute Eugene Delacroix' techniques to Veronese himself. He also had a starring role in Diego Velazquez' career, having influenced his composition and use of architectural settings. His painting, The Wedding at Cana, was hung opposite the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, where if reached the poet, Baudelaire. He wrote about his "heavenly, afternoon colours." As one of the world's most famous masters, Paolo Veronese left the world a better place than he found it. Isn't that what art's about?