THE BIG REVIEW | Titian: Love, Desire, Death – National Gallery, London

The reunion of Titian’s poesie paintings made for Prince Philip of Habsburg (future King Philip II of Spain) is a momentous occasion in the history of art. Created between 1551 and 1562, the series shows the elderly Titian’s artistic freedom at its height. Free to choose his subject matter and interpret them as he pleased, it was also Titian at his most self-critical.

The six paintings were separated in the late 16th century, floating between various prestigious collections, before entering the present collections of the Museo del Prado (Madrid), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston), London’s Wallace Collection, Apsley House, and National Gallery, and also the National Galleries of Scotland.

With the exception of a seventh painting – The Death of Actaeon – all of them were received by Philip and probably hung together. The monarch had no fixed residence so they were never intended for a specific site, but Titian certainly conceived them for display in a single room, which they are in the National Gallery’s exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death.

Following a brief introductory room, you enter a dark corridor. A couple passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses set the scene.

You glimpse a light at the end of the tunnel: the Wallace Collection’s Perseus and Andromeda. Like the chained maiden, this painting has finally been set free from monstrous loan restrictions.

Your field of view opens up, like Actaeon unveiling a curtain to reveal a bathing Diana.

Like a family reunion, the adrenaline rushes to your head like waves crashing on the rocks.

Venus, Adonis, Diana, Actaeon, Danaë. All of them are here, even The Rape of Europa from Boston. In this room. Right here. Right now.

You breathe a sigh of relief.

‘I made it’.

Oh…you came for a review…

With a lack-lustre introduction room and absence of further loans, the exhibition evidently lacks depth and leaves much to be desired. But praise must be given for the logistical challenges that come with reuniting these works.

Had there been scope for expansion, I could see a really engaging show exploring the context of the commission with letters between the artist and patron, use of the National Gallery’s own Bacchus and Ariadne, and drawings charting the development of each work.

Despite all this, it’s really quite a lovely show.

Titian: Love, Desire, Death ran from 16 March 2020 to 17 January 2021 at the National Gallery, London, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/


Before the Poesie

Before Titian embarked on his great poesie paintings for Prince Philip of Habsburg (future King Philip II of Spain), he had significant experience producing a series of bacchanal-themed paintings to decorate the famed Camerino d’Alabastro in the Castello Estense of Ferrara.⁠

Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, had originally commissioned Giovanni Bellini, Fra Bartolomeo, and Raphael to create works for the room, which also included marble reliefs by Antonio Lombardo, and 10 oblong canvases forming a frieze by Dosso Dossi to be hung above the main paintings.⁠

However, Fra Bartolomeo and Raphael died too soon, so Titian was given free rein to complete the decoration of the Camerino.⁠

Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) was the earliest to be completed, finished by 1514.⁠

Titian’s contributions were commissioned between 1518 and 1524, comprising of Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery), The Andrians, and The Worship of Venus (both Museo del Prado, Madrid).⁠

There was also another large painting by Dosso Dossi of a Bacchanal with Vulcan, now lost.⁠

This commission was probably Titian’s first major experience conceiving a unified series of works for a decorative interior, enabling us to better appreciate the scale of his ambitions for the later poesie series.


Danaë

Danaë was the first poesia sent to Prince Philip of Habsburg, completed and dispatched between March and August 1553. It was recorded in his collection by December that year.⁠

There are several versions of this painting, three of which are fully autograph (Museo Real e Bosco di Capodimonte, Museo del Prado, and Apsley House).⁠

In 2004, the Wellington version at Apsley House was identified at that sent to Philip, based on style and documentary evidence concerning the early movements of the Prado version, which has not been trimmed, with a clear view of Jupiter’s presence in the clouds raining coins, and also features a sleeping lapdog at lower left.⁠

London version

Titian’s first version of this composition was made for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese from 1544 to 1545/46, now in Naples, featuring Cupid instead of the nursemaid. Over the following decades, his workshop made several versions.⁠

Naples version

The Prado one was probably painted in the early to mid-1560s. It was one of 18 pictures sold by Diego Velázquez to Philip IV in 1634, but it is uncertain how Velázquez acquired it in the first place.⁠

Madrid version

The figure of Danaë in both the Prado and Wellington versions were traced from the Farnese version, suggesting use of the same cartoon. The nursemaids were drawn freehand.


Venus and Adonis

Venus and Adonis (Museo del Prado, Madrid) was the second picture sent to Prince Philip of Habsburg. The artist sent it in September 1554.⁠

It was planned to complement Danaë, according to a letter from the artist to his patron around 10 September:⁠

‘Since the Danaë that I sent to Your Majesty was seen from the front, in this other poesia I wanted to vary [the composition] and show the other side, so that the chamber [camerino] where they are to be placed will be more beautiful.’⁠

This picture also had a few workshop variants, some now lost, a couple in private collections, and several in public collections. The composition also proved to be rather influential upon entering the Spanish royal collection, remaining there ever since.⁠

Some copies also suggest a first version of the image, where Adonis embraces Venus with his right arm, instead of holding an arrow, accidentally pricking the goddess.


Perseus and Andromeda

Perseus and Andromeda probably arrived alongside a number of pictures received by the newly-crowned Philip II, King of Spain, in Ghent, acknowledged in a letter on 7 September 1556.⁠ It was the third picture sent to the patron.⁠

According to a letter from Titian to Philip in 1554, a Medea and Jason was planned to accompany this painting, probably as a pendant; it was abandoned.⁠

An unfinished, thinly-painted, full-sized version of the composition exists in the Musée Ingres Bourdelle, Montauban, showing a few differences, such as Perseus wielding a two-pointed scimitar rather than a sickle-shaped sword. This two-pointed scimitar does in fact exist beneath the surface paint layers of the Wallace Collection picture. The Musée Ingres version probably served as copy or record made by Titian’s workshop, perhaps with an intent to produce further replicas.⁠

This is Titian’s only treatment of the Ovidian story in his entire career, where Perseus rescues the chained Andromeda from the sea monster Ceto.⁠

His inspiration may have been the similar story in Lodovico Ariosto’s poetic Orlando Furioso of Ruggiero rescuing a chained Angelica from, you guessed it, a sea monster. He went on to treat this subject in a collaborative engraving executed by Cornelis Cort in 1565.⁠

Cornelis Cort, after Titian, Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, 1565. British Museum, London

The dramatic elevated pose of Perseus is reminiscent of the figure of Saint Mark in Jacopo Tintoretto’s Miracle of Saint Mark freeing the Slave (1548; Gallerie del Accademia, Venice), executed for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, Venice. Another inspirational source may have been Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze bas-relief of the same subject (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence).⁠

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Miracle of Saint Mark freeing the Slave, 1548. Gallerie del Accademia, Venice
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus freeing Andromeda, 1545-54. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Of all the poesie, this one changed hands the most, at least 16 times and travelled to 8 countries over nearly 260 years.⁠

One of its previous owners was Anthony van Dyck, who acquired it from Pompeo Leoni’s estate, probably when he was in Milan in 1623. By his death in 1641, van Dyck’s famous ‘Cabinet de Titien’, brought to London in 1635, contained 19 paintings by Titian and four of his own copies.⁠

This is the first time Titian’s painting has been on loan outside the Wallace Collection.


Diana and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon served as the companion to Diana and Callisto, the fourth and fifth pictures sent to Phillip II, who received them in the autumn of 1560. The shipment from Venice to Toledo took about a year due to Philip’s strict instructions to his ambassador to ensure their safe arrival.⁠

Under his successor, Philip III, the two paintings were removed from view in the main royal palace in Madrid, the Alcázar, for reasons of modesty, but rehung soon after the accession of his son Philip IV.⁠

The two Diana paintings remained in the Alcázar until the early 18th century, when Philip V presented them with The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) as a diplomatic gift to the French Ambassador. They had always been intended as a pair and have never been separated since leaving Titian’s studio.⁠

Both were jointly acquired by the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland in 2009.

Diana and Actaeon shows no evidence of precise underdrawing beneath the paint surface. Its multi-figure composition was laid in directly on canvas using brush and liquid paint in a free and expressive manner, followed by many subsequent revisions and alterations over the years.⁠

It has no further replicas by Titian or his workshop as far as we know. However, he mostly likely kept a visual record of its composition for such a purpose, as with his other poesie.


Diana and Callisto

As mentioned above, Diana and Callisto was the fifth picture to arrive at Philip II’s court in Toledo in the autumn of 1560.⁠

Intended as the right-hand companion to Diana and Actaeon, the pair have never been separated since leaving Titian’s studio. Their sloping landscapes appear to flow naturally into each other, and the stream in the foreground does the same too. The improvised curtains and hunting bows in the corners of each picture create symmetry when the pictures are hung together.⁠

Yet, despite their unity, the two pictures are lit from opposite directions. Like the rest of the poesie, Diana and Actaeon is lit from the left. However, Diana and Callisto is the only one with light falling from the right. If this is taken as Titian’s intended arrangement for the paintings, then it raises problems for the belief that the two Diana pictures were hung next to each other.⁠

Unlike the free manner in which Titian composed Diana and Actaeon directly on canvas, Diana and Callisto remained virtually unaltered from her underdrawing, enabling Titian to paint more complex, interlocking figurative groups.⁠

A later Titian and workshop version in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, shows many notable differences, reflecting the composition’s continued development, such as a contemporary fountain instead of a rocky plinth with a child statue pouring water from an urn, Diana’s left hand holding a large hunting dart rather than embracing a nymph, and the Callisto group being more clothed and dynamic.⁠

Titian and workshop, Diana and Callisto, 1566. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Vienna picture also contains a contour drawing on the back of the original canvas which follows the composition of Philip’s picture, probably based on a full-sized tracing.


The Rape of Europa

The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) was the last of the six poesie to reach Philip II, created between 1559 and 1562.⁠

Although unintended, it became the natural pendant to Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection, London); they are the only two seascapes in the series, and feature distressed female protagonists gazing upwards at armed figures in mid-flight.⁠

In the letters sent between Titian and Philip, the Rape of Europa is usually mentioned alongside another painting, The Agony in the Garden (Museo del Prado, Madrid):⁠

‘[…] I would approach with greater confidence the completion of the myth [favola] of Jupiter and Europa and the story [istoria] of Christ in the garden, so as to make something that would not be completely unworthy of such a great King.’⁠

Titian, The Agony in the Garden, 1558-62. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Titian clearly considered these his crowning achievements, which he proclaimed in a letter to Philip on 26 April 1562:⁠

‘And I can confidently say that they are the culmination and end point [or masterpiece: soggello] of the many others you commissioned’⁠

Titian imbued The Rape of Europa with a highly original composition which departs from the Ovidian text, instead relying on other textual sources to enhance its poetic effect. Contrary to previous depictions of Europa on the bull, she is here depicted in a dramatically precarious position and practically riding side-saddle instead of astride (legs on either side).⁠

The description in the catalogue sums it up really well:⁠

‘The helpless maiden can cling only to her attacker, her clothes in disarray, bare legs spread and mimicked in pose by the putto who gazes up between them from his dolphin. He invites the viewer’s anticipation of subsequent events and the inevitability of her imminent rape through subtle compositional choices’⁠

Titian and his workshop did not make any later variants or replicas of it. He must have planned it quite meticulously because very few compositional changes can be found via technical analysis, aside from some minor adjustments.⁠

Acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1896 for £20,000, it set a record for the highest price paid for a painting in the United States.


The Death of Actaeon

Concluding the fabulous reunion of the six poesie paintings for Philip II is the elephant in the room, The Death of Actaeon (National Gallery, London). Philip did not receive this one.⁠

Titian’s letter on 19 June 1559 refers to this picture as one of two poesie he had started, the other being The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) which did make it to Philip in 1562.⁠

It is then no longer mentioned in any further correspondence, suggesting it was set aside, but this raises questions whether the poesie series was supposed to comprise six or seven paintings. Perhaps Titian felt it was unnecessary and no longer fit the rest of the series.⁠

Titian worked on this picture for a long time, retouching it well into his final years; he died in 1576. The muted colour palette is consistent with his late works, and the painting is commonly believed to be unfinished due to its varying levels of finish across the surface.⁠

He actually made very few compositional changes during its development. The greatest differences concern the figure of Diana, who originally held her bow at a higher position with her right arm outstretched behind her instead of bent.⁠

Fun fact: The Death of Actaeon and The Rape of Europa were very likely painted on the same bolt of twill weave canvas because their thread counts were practically identical.⁠

For The Rape of Europa, the weave count for its canvas is 14/15 weft threads per cm, and 17/18 warp threads per cm.⁠

For The Death of Actaeon, its canvas has a weave count of 14 weft and 17 warp per cm.


Disclaimer: The above content was originally published as a 9-part Instagram series in 2020.

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