Published  30/05/2003



National Gallery, London,
19 February-18 May 2003

'Titian' is the first in a series of three exhibitions of Renaissance art to be held at the National Gallery, London. It will be followed in 2004 by 'El Greco' and 'Raphael'. Described by critics as 'magnificent' and 'the finest Old Master exhibition … ever seen', 'unmissable for lovers of painting', 'Titian' sets itself apart, not so much in its comprehensive nature (which would be impossible), but rather in displaying an outstanding collection of the great artist's works. Of particular value, the exhibition brings together three paintings by Titian and one by Bellini for the first time since they were separated in 1598. Commissioned by Alfonso d'Este, the three mythological paintings: 'Bacchus and Ariadne' (1521-23) 'The Andrians' (1523-25) and 'The Worship of Venus' (1516) hung in the Duke's study, alongside Giovanni Bellini's 'Feast of the Gods'(1514). This is the first opportunity to view these works in the context of their original setting and it is a sublime experience.

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520–23. Oil on canvas, 175.2 x 190.5 cm. The National Gallery, London © The National Gallery, London

Tiziano Vecellio, known in English as 'Titian', was the first Venetian artist to achieve fame in his own lifetime (c.1487-1576) and to be employed mostly by patrons outside Venice. Partly because he lived to the grand age of 90, he was able to produce a great body of work which ranged from dramatic mythological works to intensely human portraits. Few other artists have had such an impact on their contemporaries and on the development of Western art in general. The impact, on artists of all generations, over the 500 years since his death, has been profound. He has been cited as the most perfect artist that has ever been. Titian's contribution is difficult to quantify in general terms, but it is difficult to imagine how the history of Western art, from Rubens to the Impressionists, would have developed without him. It is reasonable to say, however, that in his lifetime Titian transformed virtually all forms of painting known: the portrait, the nude, the altarpiece, the landscape and the portrayal of mythological scenes.


In spite of the appreciation of Titian in Britain, this is the first monographical exhibition in this country. In 1983 the Royal Academy's 'Genius of Venice' showed the brilliance of the 16th century Venetian School, with Titian as its 'brightest star'. Eleven works from the National Gallery's collection form a core for the exhibition; key works have been borrowed from the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage and the Uffizi, from Washington DC, Berlin and the Czech Republic. The exhibition is, in fact, a collaboration between the National Gallery and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. The exhibition has on display over 40 major works.

As a young artist, Titian (aged about ten) was apprenticed in the studio of Giovanni Bellini, the foremost Venetian painter. In or around 1506, Titian became impressed by Giorgione, also a pupil of Bellini. Giorgione was adopting a freer, more naturalistic style. In 1508 Titian assisted Giorgione painting frescoes on a warehouse in Venice. Although the frescoes became damaged and barely legible, several observers wrote that the young Titian's contribution was more accomplished than Giorgione's, even though scholars claimed that until his early death in 1510, Giorgione was the leading painter in Venice. By 1511 when Titian painted three frescoes illustrating the miracles of St Anthony (Padua) there is a certainty and maturity; the figures have a 'naturalness and monumentality unmatched in the work of any other artist working in or around Venice at that period'.1

A number of paintings were wrongly attributed to Giorgione and have since been conceded to Titian. As a result the structure of Titian's early career has been unclear - a cohesive sequence of his early works remains elusive. Recent scholarship, however, such as the essays in the catalogue that accompanies the London show, investigates anomalies and received wisdom on Titian. From the point at which Titian becomes famous, the controversy surrounding his early work stops. He is mentioned in contemporary sources. As early as 1513 he was the youngest artist to be given a commission to paint a work for the Hall of the Great Council in Venice (later destroyed by fire in 1577). When his teacher Bellini died, Titian was awarded the government sinecure that his teacher had held; it gave him a steady income for the rest of his life.2

The grand altarpiece (1518) at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of the most important churches in Venice, strengthened his career. As a painting it marked a dramatic departure from all previous paintings. It was large in scale and the figures imbued with movement and power. There is a profoundly spiritual force in the work, unprecedented at the time. 'The Madonna of the Pesaro Family' (1519-26) is another example of Titian's ability to create a different internal structure to a work. It posed complicated formal issues in the placing of numerous figures in relation to the architectural form and the shape of the frame. By using architectural form to define the areas of light and dark in the composition Titian established a new precedent. The drama created and the elegance of the composition are remarkable.

Titian. Danaë, 1544-5. Oil on canvas, 120 x 172 cm. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprindendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

The three mythological paintings for Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (from 1518) were a series commissioned to decorate the study of his private apartments. The first commissioned was by Bellini. The commission was in itself unusual, as mythological subjects were not much chosen for private patrons by leading artists. Alfonso's motive was primarily to possess fine works of art. It was not an art with a moral narrative and, as such, could not be considered an edifying art, as was the norm for important commissions. Chosen from classical antiquity, Titian then imbued the subjects with a contemporary ambience by the use of modern dress. Ancient painting was not imitated although the 3rd Century AD was alluded to. The ancient world was presented as a model for most aspects of life: architecture, philosophy, warfare. Titian changed the manner in which pagan myth was presented thus establishing a precedent for subsequent artists. By the 19th century this interpretation of classical mythology was well established. Recent art which has, as its stated aim, a dialogue with the past owes much to the achievements of Titian. Charles Hope writes,

The subjects of 'The Worship of Venus' and 'The Andrians' were taken from the Imagines of Philostratus, a description of a probably imaginary ancient picture gallery, dating from the 3rd century AD. But Titian did not attempt to follow these texts with pedantic fidelity… What he did instead was to provide an extraordinarily compelling interpretation of pagan myth, emulating the supposed lifelikeness of the paintings described by Philostratus. This interpretation has proved so seductive that we see mythology through the eyes of Titian and his later imitators.
Particularly in his great altarpieces and mythologies, by 1530 Titian had transformed the language of Venetian painting, creating new conventions which were to be regarded as definitive for more than two centuries.3

Portrait painting was also quite transformed by Titian who, by the 1520s, had established himself as an influential portraitist both in Venice and beyond, from where he attracted wealthy patrons. His training stood him in good stead, as the Bellini brothers were among the very best portraitists in Northern Italy. 'Cosmopolitan Venice was a good market for portraiture, for members of its large ruling nobility like Senator Nicolò Zen celebrated promotion to political office with portraits in uniform. Rich citizens, foreign residents and visiting diplomats all required portraits. In this exhibition alone we find a Florentine toddler, the brother of a Genoese doge and a French bishop.'4

Titian's portraits were flattering and sympathetic. He had an ability to please his sitters yet retain an artistic integrity and insight into the individual and 'he established compelling models for aristocratic portraiture which remained influential for centuries'.5 Jennifer Fletcher continues, 'Titian's outstanding quality was his ability to produce a convincing likeness, and, through choice of pose and attributes and by the allocation of exactly the right amount of surrounding space, to arrive at a decorous yet perceptive characterisation. His art is not based on repetitive formulae. Deeply interested in individual appearance and specific optical effects, he varied his touch, the size and direction of his brushstrokes, according to the scale, intended location and tastes of the patron. His compositions were tailor-made for each sitter and, except in workshop replicas, not repeated'.6 'Titian's friends in Venice included ambassadors, musicians, courtesans and writers.'7

Highly aristocratic patrons were more able to flout convention where propriety was concerned. 'Venus of Urbino', (c.1538) one of the most erotic and beautiful nudes in the history of Western art is a case in point. The original patron is not known and in later years Titian tended towards highly suggestive nudes. The Venus could not be included in the London exhibition, but another erotic nude, 'Danaë', (1544-45) is. In September 1544, a papal nuncio visited Titian's studio where the 'Danaë' nude was in progress. He later wrote to Cardinal Farnese to say that the female nude was so erotically entrancing, she made 'The Venus of Urbino' look like 'a Theatine nun'. Titian sensual application of paint was often applied using his bare hands.

What is compelling about the Titian exhibition is the sheer range of his accomplishments. He transformed portraiture, landscape, mythological painting. He created the naturalistic portrayal of children and babies and a psychological tension and drama quite unprecedented in painting. Since his remarkable life, he has exerted a great influence on artists of all periods.

In technical terms Titian was one of the first artists in Italy to extend the expressive effects of oil painting. Modern techniques of scientific analysis reveal Titian's methods of painting as never before. The exhibition catalogue contains a detailed essay by Jill Dunkerton on Titian's painting technique. Titian's technique has long been admired but not fully understood. In the 18th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds was so keen to discover the great painter's secrets that he scraped down a painting by Titian that he himself owned, layer by layer.

Given his wealthy clientele, Titian was able to afford the very finest pigments. Venice was the centre of the pigment trade in Europe and so it was possible to procure the finest grades of ultramarine (lapis lazuli, refined and ground from what is now Afghanistan) the best quality azurite, from Germany and the much sought after mineral pigments including the yellow and orange arsenic-based colours. Venice was well known for vermilion, lead-tin yellow and lead white. The glass industry and the extensive dyeing industries in Venice supported the specialist production and import of superbly expressive pigments, central to Titian's technique. The use of yellows and whites, for example, enabled Titian to develop quite breathtaking effects in spiritual and psychological terms: stature, solemnity and energy. His portrayal of Christ interrogated by the Pharisees, 'The Tribute Money' (about 1560-68) shows Christ in a dangerous position adopting a serene but authoritative stance. The subtlety achieved by Titian here and in his fine range of superb portraits in this exhibition is magnificent. Through painting, Titian captured and comprehended the very essence of things.

The exhibition culminates in a group of late paintings. The late paintings could easily constitute a separate review for they display an unprecedented freedom in the handling of paint. The sketchy brushstrokes and lack of finish that have had great appeal to modern artists, have been explained as the work of an artist in extreme old age, drawn to violence and intense introversion. Referring to 'The Death of Actaeon' (c.1565-76), from the National Gallery's own collection, and 'The Flaying of Marsyas' (1550-76), on loan from the State Museum in Kromeriz, Czech Republic, 'Both paintings tell of the punishments meted out by the gods on presumptuous mortals, dramatising, perhaps, the ageing Titian's sense that his own moment of judgement was drawing near'.8

Scholars continue to argue over the precise status of the late works, which were still in Titian's studio when he died. Leading Titian scholar Charles Hope, in his catalogue essay, argues that the works which are relatively sketchy and monochromatic are, in fact, unfinished. According to Hope, behind the idea that Titian's late works represent tragedy and isolation is the view that he was himself lonely and isolated. He states, 'This would certainly be consistent with romantic notions about artistic genius, but it is not compatible with what is known about Titian's circumstances'.9

In terms of finish, 'Tarquin and Lucretia' (around 1570) is unlike the sketchy paintings and shows brutality and vulnerability with great visual alacrity. It captures the split second of fear in Lucretia's face with whom Titian manages to endow with dignity, status and beauty. The application of paint, the use of dramatic reds contribute to the frenzied quality of the work. 'The Death of Actaeon' is also a haunting work, but the paint quality is quite different, leading to speculation as to the significance of the work in formal terms. Hope's views are refuted by Jill Dunkerton who has studied X-rays of a number of smoother 'finished' late works. Looking beneath the surface of such paintings, she finds there is no sketchy level of work that resembles 'The Death of Actaeon' and 'The Flaying of Marsyas'. As she states, 'it would be wrong to assume that such paint handling was intended to be refined in the later stages of execution'.10

The Australian artist Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) discovered Titian's 'Death of Actaeon' soon after he arrived in London in the 1960s. He was so profoundly affected by the work that he created fifty or more paintings, etchings, drawings from this work. Entitled the 'Nude with Beast' series, they were amplified and used as theatre sets for the production of 'Elektra' at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (1962-3). Not only did Boyd create remarkable and prophetic works from this single painting but, like many other artists, he also adopted Titian's approach to art of the past and classical mythology, imbuing his interpretation with a contemporary significance.11 If Dunkerton is right, then Titian's late works were intended to look as we have in fact had the privilege to see them in this superb exhibition. The National Gallery has presented a stimulating debate in the process.

Titian died on 27 August 1576 during the greatest plague to hit Venice in the 16th century. He was survived by a large extended family and left an artistic legacy of sheer brilliance.

1. Charles Hope, 'Titian's Life and Times', Titian, National Gallery Company Ltd, London, 2003, p.13.
2. Ibid, p.15.
3. Ibid, p.18.
4. Jennifer Fletcher, 'Titian as a Painter of Portraits', ibid, p.33.
5. Hope, p.18.
6. Fletcher, op.cit., p.37.
7. Hope, op.cit., p.19.
8. Andrew Graham-Dixon, 'Seduced by Paint', The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 9 February 2003, London, p.29.
9. Hope, op.cit., p.28.
10. Jill Dunkerton, "Titian's Painting Technique", ibid, p.59.
11. See Janet McKenzie, Arthur Boyd, Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000.

Dr Janet McKenzie

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