Like many civic galleries in midsized American cities, much of the Columbus Museum of Art’s collection focuses on the last two hundred years. It boasts its share of Monets, Homers, and Cassatts—as well as the obligatory John Singer Sargent portrait and Albert Bierstadt landscape. That’s unsurprising: Popular American artistic taste can tend toward attraction to works created within the nation’s own lifespan.

When the museum imported Titian’s Portrait of a Lady in White (ca. 1555)from Dresden, Germany, it branched out further into international art history. On view through December 9, the exhibition invites museumgoers to study the intricacies of portraiture in sixteenth-century Venice.

Titian, Portrait of a Lady in White, ca. 1555, Oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden.

Although Lady in White is only a minor work in Titian’s oeuvre, it is worthy of the painter’s fame for subtlety. Hidden brushstrokes and softened tonal movements across the woman’s visage convey a complexity (compounded by the sitter’s unknown identity) that has puzzled admirers since the Venetian master completed the portrait late in his nearly sixty-year career.

The mystery of identity arises from a letter Titian sent to his patron the Duke of Ferrara alongside the painting.

The mystery of identity arises from a letter Titian sent to his patron the Duke of Ferrara alongside the painting. He refers to the sitter as “the absolute mistress of my soul,” leading many contemporaries to believe that he meant it literally, that the woman pictured was his lover. When the painting moved to its current home in Dresden (this exhibition is only the second time the painting has come to the United States, and its first visit to the Midwest) art historians speculated that the woman pictured might actually be Titian’s daughter, Lavinia, as a newlywed. In a more recent consensus, however, Titian scholars have put forward the possibility that she may be neither. Instead, the Lady in White may be a belle donne, an idealized portrait of feminine beauty.

Unlike other contemporaneous works such as the sweeping Rape of Europa (ca. 1560–62) and the mystic devotional Annunciation (1559–64), Lady in White conveys an understated gentleness. Titian limits his palette to whites, muted golds, and browns, with a slight rose in the cheeks and lips, drawing attention to the woman’s face. The face itself appears soft and youthful, with seamlessly modeled skin tones and without lines that might mark older age. Her eyes avoid direct confrontation, looking slightly to the left in a gaze that could equally fit that of a bemused lover or an expectant bride.

Titian, The Rape of Europa, ca. 1560–62, Oil on canvas, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

This exhibition is only the second time the painting has come to the United States, and its first visit to the Midwest.

And yet the woman’s opulent attire—especially the pearls on her neck, ears, and in her dyed gold hair—and her ornate ventulo (a flag-shaped fan) exceed the norms of dress for both brides and courtesans, lending credence to the more allegorical interpretation. The depiction of purity amid riches in Lady in White invites comparison to one of Titian’s early masterpieces, Sacred and Profane Love (ca. 1514–15, not included in the exhibition), itself an enigmatic painting. There, Titian presents two seemingly identical Venuses sitting on a sarcophagus in an idealized landscape. The Venus on the right wears a silken white dress with her golden hair undone in a manner befitting a Venetian bride, while the one on the left is nude save a red mantle draped over her shoulder and white cloth covering her loins.

Commissioned for a wedding, Sacred and Profane Love depicts carnal desire and spiritual devotion as different species of love itself, always pouring into death. Like the clothed Venus, the subject of Lady in White may emphasize the ideal of pure love, and the abundance of pearls (themselves a symbol of purity) might symbolize the riches reaped from such a love.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, ca. 1512–15, Oil on canvas, Galleria Borghese.

Peter Paul Rubens’s copy, Girl with a Fan (1628–29, not included in the exhibition)—painted after a now-lost version of Lady in White that Titian sent to Philip II of Spain—reorders the original work’s focus on chaste femininity with an added sensuality. A great admirer of Titian, Rubens copied many of the Venetian’s works (including the above-mentioned Rape of Europa), while adopting the source material to suit his own distinct style. Here, Lady in White becomes a full-blooded Rubens: a robust, fleshy complexion replaces Titian’s careful, almost-sculpted face. The Flemish painter introduces a more diverse palette, with blues and brightly pronounced golds drawing more attention to the woman’s dress. And, so typical of Rubens, he swells the woman’s bosom to the point that it overflows the dress. Although he covers the woman’s visible cleavage with a modest green leaf, its bright colors on a field of porcelain flesh inevitably draw the eye’s attention.

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Lady (Girl with a Fan), ca. 1612–14, Oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The Columbus Museum of Art—rather unfortunately—did not secure the Rubens copy for comparison (as a 2008 show in Vienna did). Instead, the exhibition directors pulled several later portraits from its own permanent collection to supplement the lack. These included Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Collina (1779), Anthony van Dyck’s Christian Bruce, Countess of Devonshire (1634-35), and John Michael Wright’s Lady with a Theorbo (ca. 1670). Fine paintings all, and they distinguish Titian’s style in portraiture from that of his near-contemporaries in Northern Europe. But the museum’s effort to draw a comparison between Titian and painters whose portraits here are, at best, tangentially related to Lady in White feels forced. Perhaps Titian would have been more comfortable on his own.

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