Carpaccio Created the Graphic Novels of the Renaissance

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art puts the spotlight on the seldom seen contemporary of Michelangelo

Flight Into Egypt
Vittore Carpaccio's Flight Into Egypt, c. 1515, depicts a scene from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Mary and Joseph flee the wrath of King Herod. National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

The paintings of Vittore Carpaccio were the graphic novels of the Italian Renaissance. The Venetian, who was born in the 1460s and died in 1525 or 1526, created polyptychs—large-scale oils divided over several panels—to tell stories from the Bible, the lives of the saints and Greco-Roman mythology. “They’re a bit like strip cartoons,” notes Peter Humfrey, curator of a new exhibition of more than 90 paintings and drawings on view through February at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Largely because of the logistical complexity of transporting 500-year-old paintings, some of them more than 11 feet across, this is Carpaccio’s first retrospective ever held outside Italy. But while he may be less well-known today than contemporaries like Michelangelo and Raphael, Carpaccio stands out as a compelling storyteller with a talent for vivid details—a rich woman’s look of abject ennui, the gory remains of a dragon’s lunch, the expressive ears of Mary’s long-suffering donkey. “He’s a very accessible artist, with a flair for the fabulous,” Humfrey says, “and he had something rather rare among Italian Renaissance artists: a great sense of humor.”

Carpaccio's Saint George and the Dragon, 1516, oil on canvas
Carpaccio's Saint George and the Dragon, 1516, oil on canvas Courtesy of Abbazia di San Giorgio Maggiore - Benedicti Claustra onlus
Carpaccio's Two Women on a Balcony, c. 1493, oil on panel
Carpaccio's Two Women on a Balcony, c. 1493, oil on panel Musei Civici Veneziani, Museo Correr, Venice
Carpaccio's Birth of the Virgin, c. 1502, oil on canvas
Carpaccio's Birth of the Virgin, c. 1502, oil on canvas Fondazione Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

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This article is a selection from the November/December issue of Smithsonian magazine