To the contemporary viewer, Paolo Veronese, 1528‑1588, is a conundrum. How can one of the greatest of all painters not be a great artist, too? The answer was inadvertently suggested by one of his most ardent admirers, Henry James: “Never did an artist take a greater delight in life, seeing it all as a kind of breezy festival,” he wrote. “He was the happiest of painters and produced the happiest pictures in the world.” Happiness is a trait that does not always play well now: we might prefer that Veronese displayed instead a hint of Michelangelo’s terribilità, Leonardo’s intellectual restlessness or Titian’s all-encompassing human sympathy.
To his contemporaries, however, the pomp and celebration to be found in his pictures were not defects but his distinguishing triumphs. Giorgio Vasari, the Florence-centric painter and artist-biographer, was sufficiently impressed by Veronese’s art and status to include the Venice-based painter in his second edition of The Lives of the Artists. He also attracted two near-contemporary biographers. Part of the reasoning behind the National Gallery’s new exhibition of 50 of Veronese’s paintings, the first ever large-scale show of his work here, is to gauge the true level of his merit and to ascertain whether he had depths to match his facility.