From sometime in the sixth century until early in the nineteenth, a small church dedicated to San Geminiano faced the great basilica of San Marco from the west side of the eponymous Venetian piazza. Rebuilt several times over the centuries after damage and destruction from fires and earthquakes, San Geminiano was last restored and embellished around 1557 by Jacopo Sansovino. The elegant façade, with its tiers of columns, appears in many paintings of the piazza, between the long, arcaded porches surrounding the Piazza San Marco. At some point during Sansovino’s work on the church, the Scuola di Santa Caterina commissioned an altarpiece from Jacopo Tintoretto: Angel Foretelling St. Catherine of Alexandria of her Martyrdom (1560–70), a relatively modestly sized canvas in which a hovering, gesticulating angel, seen from the back, confronts the saint, while above, floating putti hold a wheel, Catherine’s attribute, as well as a palm of martyrdom; a gang of elders crowds the background and a handsome building with a row of columns and an irrational arch fills the upper right, reminding us, as does the angel’s pose, of Tintoretto’s debt to Titian. Despite the rather bovine face of the saint, it’s a fairly impressive painting, but with little of the razzle-dazzle we expect of Tintoretto apart from its rich color and shimmer of fabrics. Scholars, in fact, differ about the amount of participation by the painter’s large and busy workshop. The church, much admired for its architecture and much visited, also housed works by Veronese and many other distinguished Venetian artists, but, in 1807, Napoleon ordered the splendid little building to be demolished and replaced by new construction with a grand stair and state rooms for himself and his viceroy.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Angel Foretelling the Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1560–70, Oil on canvas, Private collection.

After Napoleon’s destruction of San Geminiano, its contents were dispersed. Tintoretto’s altarpiece went to the Gallerie dell’Accademia and then, after 1818, appeared many times on the art market until 1983, when it was acquired by David Bowie. (Yes, that David Bowie.) After the musician’s death in 2016, another private collector purchased the painting and loaned it to the Rubens House in Antwerp. Now Tintoretto’s altarpiece has returned to Venice, in “From Titian to Rubens: Masterpieces from Antwerp and other Flemish Collections,” curated by Ben van Beneden, the director of the Rubens House.1 Handsomely installed in the Palazzo Ducale, the exhibition presents noteworthy paintings and works on paper, mainly by Flemish and Netherlandish artists, including Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Jacques Jordaens, Maerten de Vos, and Frans II Pourbus, plus, for complicated reasons, Tintoretto and Titian. There’s also a memorable painting of two young girls in the guise of saints by Michaelina Wautier (ca. 1655, Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts), a recently rediscovered, very accomplished female seventeenth-century painter whose work had often been attributed to male colleagues, including her brother. Genre paintings, still lifes, and works by Flemish followers of Caravaggio expand our understanding of Northern painting, while an ample selection of printed books and sheet music, musical instruments, sculptures, a large tapestry made after a design by Rubens, and some dazzling Flemish glassware imitating Venetian glass enrich the exhibition.

If, given the show’s wealth of Flemish artists, the title’s emphasis on Titian seems confusing, or my discussion of Tintoretto unwarranted, there is an explanation. Reliable sources tell me that the show was first conceived as focusing on the demolished San Geminiano and its contents, including David Bowie’s picture. Perhaps because that seemed too specialized—or, as an American museum director characterized an exhibition she rejected, “not box office enough”—the original idea was expanded to what I am told was “Flemings, broadly defined, in Venice,” the most notable being Rubens and Van Dyck, both of whom spent extended periods traveling and working in Northern Italy, which included visits to La Serenissima. This interesting but also fairly specialized idea was enlarged to its present form, with echoes of former conceptions, in part because the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts was closing for renovation, making much of its collection available for travel. So if things seem a little incoherent, it’s not entirely surprising.

The official justification for the exhibition is that during the sixteenth century, Antwerp, in the North, and Venice, in the South, were both celebrated, prosperous port cities with thriving trade. (That Antwerp suffered greatly during the sixteenth century’s religious wars is acknowledged by the organizers, but its recovery is stressed.) We learn that “The ambition of ‘From Titian to Rubens: Masterpieces from Antwerp and Other Flemish Collections’ is to restore a sense of the cultural and economic ferment that swept across Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its baggage of stories and styles, works and collections.” Because the exhibition seems to have been assembled in haste, it includes many works from private collections, which is both a plus and a minus. Some are remarkable, little-known paintings—a few are described as being shown publicly for the first time—but others suggest that expediency had a part in their selection. Nonetheless, there are some nice surprises, including some recently attributed or rediscovered works. Cynics will note that since most of these are in private hands, their being seen at the Palazzo Ducale can only enhance their provenance, to the benefit of their owners. But many of the works in this category are interesting enough that we can overlook the venal aspect of their inclusion.

To return to the somewhat puzzling title: Rubens’s widespread fame and his eager international collectors are credited by the organizers of “Titian to Rubens” with stimulating Antwerp’s renewed vitality and prosperity after the religious wars and a series of sieges wreaked havoc on the city in the late sixteenth century, causing about two-thirds of the population to flee. But why is Titian featured? As with Tintoretto, because of the current location of the included works, such as Titian’s large group portrait of a bishop and the pope kneeling before St. Peter, from the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts.

Titian, Portrait of a Woman and Her Daughter, ca. 1550, Oil on canvas, Private collection.

More importantly, there is Titian’s Portrait of a Woman and Her Daughter (ca. 1550), which, like Tintoretto’s Angel Foretelling St. Catherine of Alexandria of her Martyrdom, is in a private collection and on loan to the Rubens House, at least, according to the catalogue, through 2019. The portrait is described as “now returning to Venice after almost 500 years.” Left unfinished in Titian’s studio when he died, the canvas presents a lovely, roguish blonde lightly embracing her dark-haired little girl, who is shown in profile, gazing up at her mother. Both are vividly characterized, richly dressed in ochre silk, and nicely bejeweled. For various reasons, including the intimacy of the image and the fact that it is the only known double portrait by Titian, scholars suggest that the sitters were Titian’s unnamed mistress (after the death of his wife) and her daughter, Emilia Vecellio, a child known from documents about the dowry the painter paid to her husband, a grain merchant. (If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because the painting was included in “Unfinished” at the Met Breuer in 2016.) Whoever the subjects were, the painting’s incomplete state was seen as a problem, so after Titian’s death some member of his circle transformed the fetching woman and child into a rather pedestrian religious image. The woman and her daughter became the male protagonists of Tobias and the Angel Raphael, the child was given a large fish—Tobias, instructed by the angel, cured his father’s blindness with fish gall—and large wings were added to the “angel.” This, it appears, made the painting saleable, and it eventually left Venice.

In 1948, X-radiography at the Courtauld Institute, London, revealed the underlying, far superior double portrait, and many years later, the difficult task of removing the over-painting was begun. After about two decades of work, the charming original was fully revealed. Only a faint suggestion of wing, in the background, reminds us of the painting’s history. The double portrait was almost certainly seen by both Rubens and Van Dyck when they were in Italy, before it was sold abroad. Of course, they didn’t see the painting as it is now, but encountered it as Tobias and the Angel Raphael. A more direct encounter is attested to by a fluent drawing by Van Dyck, based on a Titian that the Flemish virtuoso saw when he visited Venice, a version of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, now in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Young Woman, Holding a Chain, 1605–06, Private collection.

Titian’s Portrait of a Woman and Her Daughter takes its place at the Palazzo Ducale with an early, recently identified Rubens, Portrait of a Young Woman, Holding a Chain (1605–06, Private collection, on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). It’s a restrained image most notable for its rapidly executed, sketchy, almost abstract rendering of the starched ruff. The sitter’s mobile expression, with parted lips, is also striking. Believed to have been done hurriedly during Rubens’s extended sojourn in Genoa, the painting seems to have been at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, just as the Tintoretto was, after being removed from San Geminiano, before entering the open market. The exhibition’s other portraits include a severe Van Dyck of an aristocratic military leader, gorgeous in elaborate armor, golden brocade, and a deep lace collar and cuffs. You would not wish to argue with him, much less face him, if he drew the sword on which he rests his hand. As an antidote, there’s a delightful Pourbus portrait of the magnificently attired Princess Elisabeth of France (1602–44), later Isabelle, Queen of Spain (1610–12, Private collection, on loan to the Rubens House, Antwerp), an extravaganza of silvery lace, brocade, and pearls, lit with notes of gold and dull red, against a rosy background. Elisabeth, the eldest daughter of Henry IV and Marie de’ Medici, a sweet-faced, brown-eyed eight or ten year old when she was painted, was to marry the formidable Philip IV of Spain.

Despite the ambiguity of the underlying concept of “Titian to Rubens,” the exhibition includes enough first-rate works to atone for any suggestion of arbitrary inclusion. The drawings by Rubens and Van Dyck are compelling. There are large paintings by both artists as well, including an all-stops-out Lamentation (1634–35, Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts) by Van Dyck, a frieze depicting the reclining Christ, the mourning Mary and John, and two angels, ingeniously fitted into a narrow horizontal space, like an altar front or tomb. Even more exciting are casual works that reveal the hand and, presumably, the thought processes of their makers. Van Dyck’s Head Study for the Portrait of an Alderman of Brussels (ca. 1634, Private collection, on loan to the Rubens House) seems breathed onto the canvas, magically capturing a distinctive individual who appears to have just turned slightly away from us, wearing a ruff evoked with half a dozen rhythmic strokes. A small group of Rubens’s always amazing oil sketches—studies for a crucifixion, a flagellation, and a mythological scene, among them—treats us to the brilliance of his brushwork and his stunning ability to suggest mass, form, motion, and everything from armor to drapery to horseflesh with the most economical and vigorous of touches. A large canvas, Diana and Nymphs Hunting (ca. 1635–40, Private collection, on loan to the Rubens House), credited to Rubens and two of his specialist colleagues (Paul de Vos for the animals and Jan Wildens for the landscape), is a reminder of how carefully Rubens studied and copied the paintings by Titian in the royal collections during his sojourn in Madrid in the late 1620s; the influence of Titian’s poesie, the mythological subjects commissioned by Philip II, is palpable. Other works have equally explicit Italian connections. The oil sketch, The Flagellation of Christ (ca. 1617, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent), was made in preparation for a work in the cycle The Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, commissioned to mark the acquisition of Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary for St. Paul’s Church, in Antwerp. The composition is clearly based on a Flagellation by Sebastiano del Piombo, a highly admired work that Rubens is believed to have seen when he visited Rome as a young, impressionable artist eager to assimilate whatever aesthetic innovations he encountered.

Anthony Van Dyck, The Lamentation of Christ, 1635–36, Oil on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

The exhibition’s paintings by Jordaens are pretty spectacular. His appetite for mythological subjects is attested to by the opulent Cupid and Psyche (ca. 1645, Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts), with its pile of fleshy, unconscious nudes, a sleeping lapdog, cascades of flowers, and a chubby Cupid surveying the women. Neptune and Amphitrite (ca. 1648, Rubens House, Antwerp) is even more extravagant: a pyramid of flesh and fur, water and clouds, constructed from the robust sea god with his outstretched trident, his appetizing wife, an assortment of tritons, dolphins, and seahorses, and a horn-blowing putto. It’s as if Jordaens were trying to encapsulate the Baroque by out-Rubensing Rubens.

Works by less familiar artists are sometimes very arresting, such as A Young Man Smiling, and Joseph Deutz in a Mirror (ca. 1654–60, Private collection), a rather goofy small painting attributed to the peripatetic Michael Sweerts, who worked in Brussels, Rome, and Amsterdam before heading to China to be a missionary. “Dismissed because of unruly behavior,” we learn, he died in Goa, India. (He is well represented in the current installation of the permanent collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.) Sweerts’s robustly modeled forms and bold orchestration of dark and light bear witness to his years in Rome under the patronage of the powerful Pamphilj family, at a time when Caravaggio’s influence was significant. Even more Caravaggesque is Theodoor Rombouts’s Card Players (ca. 1630, Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts), with its cast of characters derived from the Roman bad boy’s example: half-length figures seated around a table; a wayward young victim of card sharps, with fine clothing and a plumed hat; a bawdy old woman; and an old man who is clearly in on the scam. Modest early seventeenth-century genre scenes by Adrian Brouwer and David Teniers II offset the section of the show titled “Living in Luxury,” where Rubens’s and Jordaens’s mythological scenes, among other lush works, vie for attention with sculpture, silver, fine glassware, tapestry, and some of the splendid musical instruments Antwerp was known for producing. (A CD of music by Flemish composers of the period spanned by “Titian to Rubens,” performed on period instruments, is available along with the catalogue.)

Is “From Titian to Rubens: Masterpieces from Antwerp and other Flemish Collections” the definitive word on the subject? Hardly. But it affords a glimpse, not only into the holdings of Flemish museums, but also into private collections whose works are rarely made public. If the full logic of the show is elusive, there are sufficient compelling works to keep us engaged. That’s justification enough.

1 “From Titian to Rubens: Masterpieces from Antwerp and other Flemish Collections” opened at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, on September 5, 2019, and remains on view through March 1, 2020.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 3, on page 44
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