Masaccio was the first great painter of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio died at twenty-six and little is known about the exact circumstances of his death. Despite his brief career, he had a profound influence on other artists. He was one of the first to use linear perspective in his painting, employing techniques such as vanishing point in art for the first time. He also moved away from the International Gothic style and elaborate ornamentation to a more naturalistic mode that employed perspective and chiaroscuro for greater realism.
Masaccio was born in Castel San Giovanni di Altura, now San Giovanni Valdarno. His father was a notary and died in 1406, when Tommaso was only five. There is no evidence for Masaccio's artistic education. Renaissance painters traditionally began an apprenticeship with an established master at about the age of 12; Masaccio would likely have had to move to Florence to receive his training, but he was not documented in the city until he joined the painters guild (the Arte de' Medici e Speziali) as an independent master on January 7, 1422, signing as "Masus S. Johannis Simonis pictor populi S. Nicholae de Florentia."
The first works attributed to Masaccio are the San Giovenale Triptych (1422), now in the Museum of Cascia di Reggello, near Florence, and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Sant'Anna Metterza) (c. 1424) at the Uffizi. The San Giovenale altarpiece was only discovered in 1961 in the church of San Giovenale at Cascia di Reggello, which is very close to Masaccio's hometown. It represents the Virgin and Child with angels and saints. The painting has lost much of its original framing, and its surface is badly abraded. Nevertheless, Masaccio's concern to suggest three-dimensionality through volumetric figures and foreshortened forms (a revival of Giotto's approach, rather than a continuation of contemporary trends) is already apparent.
The second work was perhaps Masaccio's first collaboration with the older and already-renowned artist, Masolino da Panicale (1383/4-c. 1436). The circumstances of the 2 artists' collaboration are unclear; since Masolino was considerably older, it seems likely that he brought Masaccio under his wing, but the division of hands in the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is so marked that it is hard to see the older artist as the controlling figure in this commission. Masolino's figures are delicate, graceful and somewhat flat, while Masaccio's are solid and hefty. In Florence, Masaccio could study the works of Giotto and become friends with Brunelleschi and Donatello. According to Vasari, at their prompting in 1423 Masaccio travelled to Rome with Masolino: from that point he was freed of all Gothic and Byzantine influence, as may be seen in his altarpiece for the Carmelite Church in Pisa.
In 1424 the "duo of Masaccio and Masolino was commissioned by the powerful and rich Felice Brancacci to execute a cycle of frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Painting began around 1425 with the two artists probably working simultaneously. For reasons that are unclear they left the chapel unfinished, and it was completed by Filippino Lippi in the 1480s. The style of Masaccio's scenes shows the influence of Giotto especially. Figures are large, heavy, and solid; emotions are expressed through faces and gestures; and there is a strong impression of naturalism throughout the paintings. Unlike Giotto, however, Masaccio uses linear and atmospheric perspective, directional light, and chiaroscuro, which is the representation of form through light and color without outlines. As a result his frescoes are even more convincingly lifelike than those of his trecento predecessor. The fresco had a huge influence on Michelangelo. Another major work is The Tribute Money in which Jesus and the Apostles are depicted as neo-classical archetypes. In this he was a pioneer in applying the newly discovered rules of perspective.
On September 1425 Masolino left the work and went to Hungary. Masaccio left the frescoes unfinished in 1426 in order to respond to other commissions, probably coming from the same patron. It has been suggested that the declining finances of Felice Brancacci were insufficient to pay for any more work, so the painter therefore sought work elsewhere. Masaccio returned in 1427 to work again in the Carmine, beginning the Resurrection of the Son of Theophilus, but apparently left it, too, unfinished. This painting was either restored or completed more than fifty years later by Filippino Lippi. Some of the scenes completed by Masaccio and Masolino were lost in a fire in 1771. In the twentieth century, the removal of marble slabs covering two areas of the paintings revealed the original appearance of the work.
On February 19, 1426 Masaccio was commissioned by Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi da San Giusto, to paint a major altarpiece, the Pisa Altarpiece, for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. The work was dismantled and dispersed in the 18th century, and only eleven of about twenty original panels have been rediscovered in various collections around the world. Around 1427 Masaccio won a prestigious commission to produce a Holy Trinity for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The fresco, considered by many to be Masaccio's masterwork, is the earliest surviving painting to use systematic linear perspective, possibly devised by Masaccio with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself.
Masaccio produced two other works, a Nativity and an Annunciation, now lost, before leaving for Rome, meeting back his companion Masolino. Masaccio died at the end of 1428. According to a legend, he was poisoned by a jealous rival painter. Only four frescoes undoubtedly from Masaccio's hand still exist today, although many other works have been at least partially attributed to him. Others are believed to have been destroyed. Masaccio profoundly influenced the art of painting in the Renaissance. According to Vasari, all Florentine painters studied his frescoes extensively in order to "learn the precepts and rules for painting well". He transformed the direction of Italian painting, moving it away from the idealizations of Gothic art, and, for the first time, presenting it as part of a more profound, natural, and humanist world.