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‘Titian: Love, Desire, Death’ at the National Gallery, London

By Peter Humphrey - 15. July 2020
Art historian Peter Humfrey reviews the much anticipated exhibition reuniting Titian’s six great mythological paintings for Philip II of Spain, which was forced to close three days after opening in March.

On March 16, the much anticipated exhibition reuniting Titian’s six great mythological paintings for Philip II of Spain opened at the National Gallery. The opportunity to see all six together was unprecedented, and was one that had not been enjoyed by their creator, nor even perhaps by their original owner. Titian had executed them and dispatched them from his base in Venice piecemeal over a period of about a decade (c.1552–62), and he never went to Spain. They were not destined for any particular residence, and there is no clear evidence that when in the Spanish royal collection they were ever arranged as a group in a bespoke space. Yet the six paintings were certainly conceived as a cycle, unified by size, shape and theme, and in the beautiful and moving display at the National Gallery this unity is further emphasized by their newly carved matching frames. Most unfortunately, only three days after the opening of the exhibition to the public, it became another casualty of Covid-19. The Gallery closed its doors to the public, and it now looks as if they may not re-open before the exhibition is due to end on June 14.

Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562, oil on canvas, 178 x 205 cm © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Philip was Titian’s most important patron, in terms both of prestige and productiveness, of the last twenty-five years of the painter’s long life. The two first met in Milan at the end of 1548. Still crown prince, Philip was about to embark on a tour of the extensive domains of his father, the Emperor Charles V. The painter had enjoyed Charles’s patronage for the previous two decades, but the emperor placed his commissions only sporadically. In any case, his preference was for devotional pictures and state portraits, and he showed little taste for the kind of erotic subject for which Titian had become celebrated among the princes of Italy. When hurrying to obey the prince’s summons, he clearly sought to secure a reliable source of income for himself and his family in his declining years. At the same time, it must have been in his mind to offer to paint for Philip, who was still in his early twenties, a series of large-scale depictions of stories from classical mythology. It was already known that Titian would have had ample opportunity to discuss this and other projects with the prince during a six-month stay in Augsburg over the winter of 1550–51, but recent research has discovered that immediately following the meeting in Milan he had joined the prince’s retinue and accompanied him across the Alps two winters previously, in 1548–9. Although after 1551 painter and patron were never to meet again, these two extensive periods of personal contact provided the basis for their subsequent, extraordinarily fruitful long-distance relationship.

Only once before had Titian had the opportunity to undertake a whole series of mythological narratives (as opposed to single episodes). This was in 1518–25, when he painted three Bacchanals for the private apartment of the Duke of Ferrara (and in the process repainted a fourth, by Giovanni Bellini). Now Philip agreed that Titian should send him a regular consignment of paintings, in return for a generous pension, and by the time of the painter’s death in 1576 he had sent his patron well over thirty. As befitted the Rex Catholicissimus, the great majority of these were religious in subject. Between 1552 and 1562, however, the consignments also included the six mythologies with subjects largely drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Room VI installation view of Titian: Love, Desire, Death at the National Gallery, London ©The National Gallery, London

The arrangement was one of the most favourable enjoyed by any Renaissance painter. True, Titian’s pension was not always paid regularly, and over the years he sent numerous letters of complaint on this score to the Spanish court. But working for an admiring but very distant patron freed him from close supervision and unwelcome interference. He could choose his own subjects, without any need to conform to some overall iconographic programme. He could also develop a broader and looser manner of execution, without fear of complaints that his work was not properly finished. These exceptional circumstances resulted in one of the greatest and most influential groups of mythologies in the history of Western painting.

Titian, Perseus and Andromeda, 1554-46, oil on canvas, 230 x 243 cm ©The Wallace Collection, London

The progress of the execution and delivery of the poesie is documented by the remarkably detailed surviving correspondence between Titian and his patron, sometimes by way of his secretaries and agents. The first of the series, a “Danaë”, had already been received by the prince by August 1553. For obvious reasons this painting was traditionally identified with the magnificent version of this subject now in the Prado. Recently, however, it has been shown (although not without controversy) that the Prado picture dates from a good decade later, and that Philip’s “Danaë” is identifiable instead with an admittedly weaker version now at Apsley House, which was seized by the Duke of Wellington from the baggage train of Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Then in September 1554, Titian sent the “Venus and Adonis” (Prado) to Philip in London, soon after his marriage to Queen Mary Tudor. This was followed by the “Perseus and Andromeda” (Wallace Collection), sent to Philip in Brussels in March 1556, and by the “Diana and Actaeon” and the “Diana and Callisto” (both jointly owned by the National Gallery, London, and the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh), sent together to Spain in 1559. Finally, the “Rape of Europa” (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) was completed and dispatched in 1562.

Titian’s concept for the series is spelt out in a particularly telling passage in a letter sent to Philip to accompany the completed “Venus and Adonis”:

“Since the Danaë was seen from the front, in this other poesia I wanted to vary (the composition) and show the other side, so that the camerino (chamber) where they are to be placed will be more beautiful. I will soon send you the poesia of Perseus and Andromeda, which will present a different point of view from these, as well as the poesia of Medea and Jason.”

From this a number of inferences may be drawn. From the beginning the paintings (including, therefore, the now cut-down Apsley House “Danaë”)  were to be of about the same size and shape. They were conceived in complementary pairs. The overall programme was flexible (since the planned “Medea and Jason” was never painted, and the “Rape of Europa” later became the pendant to the “Perseus and Andomeda”). The painter imagined that the works were to be displayed in a relatively small space, perhaps resembling the apartment of the Duke of Ferrara. And he assured his patron that the female nudes that these mythological subjects called for were to be seen from a variety of different viewpoints. This last point underlines the obvious fact that at their most basic level the paintings were highly erotic in content, an aspect that was further heightened by the sensuousness of Titian’s pictorial handling. Yet that he intended them to be much more than erotica is evident from his description of them as poesie. In other words, they were conceived as poems in paint, which would rival Ovid’s Metamorphoses as dramatic narratives. For the most part the stories are deeply tragic, and the immediate fate of several of the protagonists is suffering or death. But Titian’s canvases also contain touches of comedy, and the range of human feeling they explore is very wide: from terror to pity, from violence to ecstasy, from cruelty to sorrow, from base lust to passionate love.

Titian, Venus and Adonis, © Museo del Prado, Madrid

The history of the commission, the identification of Titian’s literary and visual sources, and the inventiveness of his interpretation of the subjects are all discussed in detail in the truly excellent exhibition catalogue. The curator, Matthias Wivel, has succeeded admirably in co-ordinating a rather large team of expert contributors, and in coaxing from them numerous new insights. Particularly valuable is the essay on the artist’s technique. Titian was a supreme master of the technique of painting in oils on canvas, and the richness of his palette and the expressiveness of his brushwork have always been admired as central to his genius. In recent decades an increasing number of his works have undergone technical examination, using increasingly sophisticated scientific methods, and the revelation of his constant experimentation never ceases to surprise. Included here are the findings of the cleaning and conservation of the “Europa”, undertaken in preparation for the present exhibition. This is the best preserved of the series, and it shows the artist employing an astonishingly wide range of effects, suggestive of surface texture and movement, as well as of light and colour.

Titian, Death of Acteon, 1559-75, oil on canvas 178.8 x 197.8 cm © The National Gallery, London
Titian, Diana and Castillo, 1556-59, oil on canvas, 187 x 204.5 cm ©National Galleries of Scotland

The catalogue also contains an authoritative essay on the artistic legacy of the poesie, with particular reference to Titian’s seventeenth-century successors Rubens and Velázquez. To pursue this story down to Constable (and, it might be added, to Turner), it is obviously important to know where the paintings were when, and to be able to follow their adventures as most of them gradually left the Spanish royal collection and gravitated to Paris and then London. This information is provided in the detailed provenances provided in the appendix. From these it is clear that any display of the mythologies as a group following the arrival of the “Europa” in Spain in 1562 would have been shortlived. As early as 1579 – only three years after the painter’s death – Philip appears to have given away the “Perseus and Andromeda” to his chief minister Antonio Pérez, and by 1623 it was in the possession of none other than Van Dyck. For most of the seventeenth century the others were kept in the palace of the Alcázar in Madrid, together with other paintings with erotic subjects, where they were discreetly hidden from the view of the ladies of the court. In the early eighteenth century the two “Diana”s and the “Europa” were sent to France, where they quickly entered the famous Orléans collection, and there they were reunited with the “Perseus”. After the French Revolution these four came to London, and with the arrival of the “Danaë” in 1813, five of the six poesie were in England, leaving only the “Venus and Adonis” in Spain. It is an intriguing thought that it might have been possible to show these five together in London some time in the years after Waterloo, if their new British aristocratic owners had been asked to lend them to an exhibiting gallery such as the British Institution. But this never happened, and when the National Gallery failed to buy the “Europa” from Lord Darnley in 1896, it crossed the Atlantic. After the departure of the two “Diana”s from Bridgewater House for Scotland at outbreak of war in 1939, the series looked more dispersed than ever.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23, oil on canvas © The National Gallery, London

With the rise of international loan exhibitions in the postwar period, several curators of leading museums must have dreamt of displaying the paintings together. But the dream appeared unrealizable, because in at least four cases severe restrictions had been placed on lending them. An opening of the impasse, however, was created in 2009 and 2012, when the “Diana”s passed from the private possession of the Duke of Sutherland to the joint ownership of the National Galleries of London and Edinburgh. That left the Gardner Museum to relax a convention not to lend its iconic masterpiece, and the Wallace Collection to find a legal loophole to allow the “Perseus” to travel the two miles from Manchester Square to Trafalgar Square. Although the “Venus and Adonis” is likewise an icon of the Prado, there already existed a precedent for lending it abroad. The Apsley House “Danaë” had already been sent to the Prado for conservation, culminating in a small exhibition, in 2013–14.

Room VI on the main floor of the National Gallery, although certainly much larger than the camerino envisaged by the artist, works well as a setting for the exhibition. By being separated relatively widely they have space in which to breathe and resonate, while also remaining in dialogue with one another. The natural top lighting provides a sympathetic complement to the shifting patterns of light and shade. The dark red walls, although conventional for displays of sixteenth-century Venetian painting, create an effective foil for the colours. Because in their present homes the canvases are enclosed in frames of heterogeneous designs dating from different periods, a set of six new carved and gilded frames have been made for the occasion. Since nothing is known of any original framing, they follow a Venetian design of the period, as is explained in a video documentary (available on the National Gallery website, along with other offerings).

Titian Exhibition Gallery 06 of the exhibition Titian: Love Desire Death.
©The National Gallery, London

Also included in the exhibition (and discussed extensively in the catalogue) is a seventh canvas, the National Gallery’s own “Death of Actaeon”. Of the same dimensions as the other six, and representing the narrative sequel to the “Diana and Actaeon”, this painting is almost certainly identical with one mentioned in a letter to Philip in 1559 as having been just begun, together with the “Europa”. But then Titian never sent it, perhaps having decided that the cycle was complete without it.

Following its showing in London, the exhibition (minus the “Death of Actaeon”) is due to travel to several of the other institutions that have participated actively in the realization of the dream. Coronavirus permitting, it will go to Edinburgh in July, to Madrid in October, and to Boston in February of next year. Even if the Wallace Collection’s “Perseus” does not accompany the other five on their travels, these other venues may provide an opportunity for visitors cheated of their chance to see the exhibition at the National Gallery.

Part of the pity of the temporary closure of the exhibition and of its uncertain future is that the paintings raise troubling questions of universal relevance. We can agree to be captivated by their pictorial magnificence, by the poetic fall of light and shade over human and natural forms, by the celebration of female beauty. But should we enjoy the sight of a young huntsman, who has unwittingly stumbled across a bathing party, about to be torn limb from limb by his hounds in punishment for his transgression? Or of a pregnant girl, who has been seduced in contravention of her vows of chastity, undergoing the humiliation of having her clothes torn off by her companions? Or of another girl, whose limbs flail in terror as she is carried across the sea by a bull? But Titian, like Ovid, engages fully with the tragic implications of his subjects. He seems to be saying that human beings are constantly subject to an often sudden and brutal fate. And he also questions the right of those with power over others – in this case the Olympian gods – to indulge in sexual violence, or to administer justice in a way that is arbitrary and cruel.❖

Originally published in The Time’s Literary Supplement No. 6108, 24 Apr 2020 with the title ‘Poems in Paint: Titian’s Great Mythological Series Reunited – and locked down’. Published here with the permission of the author Peter Humphry.
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