Pontormo was the son of the painter Bartolommeo Carrucci. According to Vasari, he was apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci and afterward to Mariotto Albertinelli and Piero di Cosimo. At the age of 18 he entered the workshop of Andrea del Sarto, and it is this influence that is most apparent in his early works. Pontormo was precocious (he was praised by Michelangelo whilst still a youth) and by the time he painted his Joseph in Egypt around 1515 (National Gallery, London), part of a series of paintings for Pier Francesco Borgherini, he had already created a distinctive style - full of restless movement and disconcertingly irrational effects of scale and space - that put him in the vanguard of Mannerism. In 1518 he completed an altarpiece for the Church of San Michele Visdomini, Florence, that also reflects its agitated - almost neurotic - emotionalism a departure from the balance and tranquillity of the Renaissance.
Pontormo was primarily a religious painter, but he painted a number of sensitive portraits (he was a major influence on his pupil and adopted son Bronzino) and in 1521 was employed by the Medici family to decorate their villa at Poggio a Caiano with mythological subjects (Vertumnus and Pomona according to Vasari, but the identification is disputed) in which an apparently idyllic scene reveals a strong undercurrent of neurosis. In the Passion cycle (1522-25) for the Certosa near Florence (now in poor condition), he borrowed ideas from Albrecht Dürer, whose engravings and woodcuts were circulating in Italy. The emotional tension apparent in his work reaches its peak in Pontormo's masterpiece, the altarpiece of the Entombment (c.1526-8) in the Capella Capponi at Santa Felicità, Florence. Painted in extraordinarily vivid colours and featuring deeply poignant figures who seem lost in a trance of grief, this is one of the key works of Mannerism.
Pontormo became more and more of a recluse in his later life. A diary survives from 1554 to 1557, but the important frescoes in San Lorenzo on which he worked during the last decade of his life are now known only from drawings (best represented in the Uffizi); in these the influence of Michelangelo is apparent. The diary tells us much of his melancholic and introspective character, derailed by the slightest illness. Numerous drawings survive, and paintings are to be found in various galleries in Europe and America, as well as in Florence