Who said old dogs can’t learn new tricks? One by-product of our culture machine’s obsession with novelty is the prevailing idea that creative accomplishment is reserved for the young. But a quick glance towards history will reveal countless instances of artists pushing through to some of their greatest works after many decades in the business. Think of Michelangelo’s immortal work on St. Peter’s Basilica—he was seventy-one when Pope Paul III appointed him chief architect of the project. Or, in more modern times, of Cézanne’s Large Bathers (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), completed a year before the Provençal painter died in 1906 at sixty-seven. Or of Monet’s spellbinding Water Lilies series, the most daring of which were made in Giverny only after the painter had turned eighty. Other examples abound, but few are quite as notable as Titian’s late-in-life mythological series for Philip II of Spain, which the Venetian master worked on from 1551–62, throughout his seventh decade and into his eighth.
Indeed, Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488–1576) had already been for about forty years the master of Venetian painting—the “Sun Amidst Small Stars,” as he was commonly known—by the time he first met with Philip II in 1548–49 in Milan and Augsburg to paint his portraits. Prince Philip (then angling to succeed his father as Holy Roman Emperor) was impressed, and he effectively contracted Titian to serve as court painter in absentia, with the artist sending pictures from his Venice studio on a regular basis for a handsome salary.
The arrangement allowed Titian unprecedented latitude to choose his own subjects and formats. At some point it was agreed that he would paint a cycle of narratives using Greco-Roman mythology as versified in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as its primary source. Titian ultimately sent six of these intricate, stylistically radical, and conceptually bold narratives to Philip, and by the end of the sixteenth century they were installed together in a single chamber within the Alcázar in Madrid. The paintings—which Titian came to call his poesie, his poems in paint—remained in the Spanish royal collection until they were dispersed in 1704.
Now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the paintings are reunited, for the first time since their scattering, in a compact exhibition that began in Europe—first at the National Gallery, London, and then at the Prado in Madrid. The Gardner is its only U.S. stop, and in all likelihood the paintings will never again be seen together in our lifetimes. It is thus, if anything ever was, a “must-see.”
Several of the paintings show Titian at the top of his game, which means they are some of the most beautiful oil paintings ever made. The six are, in order of their creation, Danaë (1551–53), Venus and Adonis (ca. 1553–54), Perseus and Andromeda (ca. 1554–56), Diana and Actaeon (1556–59), Diana and Callisto (1556–59), and The Rape of Europa (1559–62). These tales, in which gods and mortals mix and mingle, playing out all-too-human themes of love and lust, greed and despair, vengeance and violence, found immaculate expression in the mind and brush of Titian. The paintings, with their careening compositions, throbbing colors, and vivacious surfaces, run parallel to Ovid’s own discursive, flitting, metamorphic impulse.
Following formal and narrative relationships among the paintings (as well as extant correspondence between Titian and Philip), the Gardner’s curator, Nathaniel Silver, has divided the large canvases into three pairs. Thus, Danaë, of the reclining nude princess at the moment of her insemination by Jupiter as golden rain, goes with Venus and Adonis, in which the goddess of beauty, also reclining (though now seen from behind), begs her lover not to embark on his fatal hunt. Diana and Actaeon, at the moment when Actaeon stumbles upon the bathing goddess and her retinue of nymphs, goes with Diana and Callisto, in which an imperious Diana banishes one of her followers for having been impregnated (also by Jupiter). Finally, the seaside Perseus and Andromeda, in which a nude Andromeda stands chained, watching the demigod Perseus crash out of the sky, goes with The Rape of Europa, in which Jupiter, this time transformed into a sinewy white bull, absconds through the Mediterranean with a frightened Europa on his back. These are hung in matching gilded frames on temporary walls that angle inward at a slight V so that the viewer can take in each duo simultaneously, at an appropriate distance.
What’s an appropriate distance? As Titian developed the series, the paintings became brushier and brushier. Contemporary commentators applauded the vivacity of Titian’s color and compositions but were often nonplussed by what we’d now call their radically impressionistic manner. The line went that the paintings looked great from afar, but that Titian’s disegno, his drawing, appeared “hurried” when seen up close. Nevertheless, over the course of his poesie, Titian pushed this manner even further, developing it to a radical extreme. Compare, for instance, the crisp, sober edges of the earlier Venus and Adonis to analogous passages in the later Diana and Actaeon. Get near to Diana, and much of the surface presents as a dissolving mist of diaphanous pigment. Ten steps back, and that surface coheres, as if by magic, into a convincing perceptual space, intelligible yet shifty, never allowing a moment’s rest as it scatters the eye about its ins and outs, its nears and fars, its sightlines and colors and lights.
Because he built them up through innumerable layers of thin glazes, scumbled lightly over the visible weaves of his canvases, Titian’s surfaces often look more breathed-into-being than painted. As Delacroix wrote in the nineteenth century, “The touch is so difficult to see in his work, the hand of the craftsman so completely concealed, that the steps he took to arrive at such perfection remain a mystery.” With Titian’s hand goes our sense of his toil. In these consummately sensuous images, hard work has no place.
Nevertheless, Titian labored intensely on these paintings, often over the course of several years. In his striking account of Titian’s creative practice, Palma il Giovane, a workshop assistant, writes that the master
laid in his pictures with a mass of color, which served as a groundwork for what he wanted to express. . . . With the same brush dipped in red, black, or yellow he worked up the light parts and in four strokes he could create a remarkably fine figure. . . . Then he turned the picture to the wall and left it for months without looking at it, until he turned to it and stared critically at it, as if it were a mortal enemy. . . . If he found something which displeased him he went to work like a surgeon. . . . Thus, by repeated revisions he brought his pictures to a high state of perfection . . . . He never painted a figure alla prima, and used to say that he who improvises can never make a perfect line of poetry. . . . He finished his figures like this and in the last stages he used his fingers more than his brush.
Within this passage lies a key to painting: the necessity of gaining psychological distance from one’s own picture. An artist must be able to go inside and outside his creation—to be fully involved in its making, but also to achieve critical separation, to see it with fresh, impartial eyes, as if for the first time. By turning his canvas to the wall, then leaving it unseen for months, then glaring at it in a flash as if a “mortal enemy,” then caressing it to completion with the touch of his fingertips, Titian could create a picture that steals breath on initial impact, yet also unfolds with unhurried calm, getting better and better as you sit and linger in its presence.
An artist must be able to go inside and outside his creation—to be fully involved in its making, but also to achieve critical separation, to see it with fresh, impartial eyes, as if for the first time.
Time is thus embedded in the poesie. As a narrative construct, time also directs Titian’s storytelling. There’s an insistence about the way Titian seeks out the exact psychological inflection point in his chosen fable, the instant of transition, where movement and stasis coexist. In doing so Titian often declines to dazzle his patron with more spectacular physical action. Action’s aplenty, to be sure—nowhere more so than in The Rape of Europa, with its tumbling cupids, those gruesome fish-monsters, the hurtling white bull, Europa gripping his horn tight, her loose-fitting gown fluttering away in the wind. But consider his Diana and Actaeon. Pretty much every other contemporary depiction of the myth shows Diana actively splashing Actaeon with the water that will transform him into a stag. In Paolo Veronese’s rendition of the story a few years later (1560s, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), for instance, Actaeon reclines in voyeuristic pleasure at the edge of the stream—he’s been there for a while—and receives the retributive splash as warranted punishment for that gaze.
Titian, however, takes on an earlier moment, charging the fable with a far more complicated moral and message. The setting is a grotto of rusticated ruins on the edge of a forest, with deep blue mountains lining the horizon behind. A carved-stone fountain sags askew into a pool and quiet stream, in and around which Diana and her six maidens bathe. From the left, Actaeon bursts onto the scene while recoiling in surprise. His pose communicates both forward and backward momentum. His left hand reaches out with tense ambiguity, seeming to draw back the vermillion curtain behind it—revealing the nude women to his gaze—simultaneously shouting “stop!” Alas, it’s but a futile attempt to block his accidental, yet nonetheless shameful, look.
Opposite is Diana, seated in a chair at the edge of the pool and furiously covering up. She’s in no position to splash Actaeon. Her toe just barely reaches the water’s glassy surface. Are we to presume that she’ll use that foot to kick the water? It’s not quite clear, and there’s brittle tension in the dramatic suspension. Diana’s nymphs, scattered about the composition, don’t know what to do. Some stare at Actaeon, some at Diana, anxious to know how she’ll respond. One of Actaeon’s hounds, emerging in profile out of the left side of the canvas, looks as stunned as his master, a visual kinship that only underscores the heartbreaking fact that soon this loyal companion will turn executioner once the transformation is complete.
Yet despite Titian’s freeze-frame naturalism, the poesie also hint at broader narrative arcs. Thus, for instance, hanging in a murky corner, the skulls and hides of Diana’s hunt foreshadow Actaeon’s looming metamorphosis and dismemberment. And though each of the vignettes belongs to its own myth—they’re about as disjointed as the Metamorphoses themselves—subtle formal continuities evoke an overall sense of passing time. Consider the way that the crisp, cool, noontime daylight of Diana and Actaeon proceeds to the warmer dusk of Diana and Callisto, whose similarly scaled figures inhabit a similar outdoor setting. Or how the similarly doomed Callisto and Actaeon wear similarly colored vermillion socks, both of which daringly draw our attention to the bottom-left extremes of their respective canvases.
All this comes to a head with The Rape of Europa, which concludes the series. Look for a straight horizontal or vertical that might ground you in the picture—you won’t find it. There’s a reckless asymmetry to the composition. Titian whips us around the edges of the rectangle like a cyclone: drawn first to the faces of Europa and the bull at the far right of the picture, our eye moves down the diagonal of Europa’s body to the fish-riding putti on the bottom left, from there to the tumbling cupids above—around again and again.
The current exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see this picture, which usually hangs above furniture on the Gardner’s third floor, in ideal lighting and at eye level. It’s also our first look at the painting after its 2020 cleaning and restoration. The results of that process are (dare I say) miraculous. Its colors are splashy and brilliant, yet clear and convincing. The painting is seductive and ravishing.
Does Titian’s aestheticization trivialize that violence?
It’s also a painting about seduction and rape, necessarily provoking an aesthetic experience that’s meant to parallel the violence it depicts. Does Titian’s aestheticization trivialize that violence? Perhaps more importantly, Titian’s expression of violence is inextricably mixed in with a boiling eroticism that’s uncomfortable in its sheer audacity. Europa is not only being taken away by Jupiter, she is available to us, the voyeurs of this picture.
That overt eroticism sat uneasily in Philip’s Spanish court. Many of his advisors thought it unwise to display the pictures publicly, amid the Inquisition’s repressive enforcement of religious orthodoxy. Ovid himself was exiled from Rome by Augustus, his books banned from the libraries, in 8 A.D.—the very same year that he finished his subversive, destabilizing Metamorphoses.
Today, it’s no less potent. If the American response to the current exhibition is any indication, the puritan demand for moral sterility lives on, more than two millennia later. In The New York Times, an article by Holland Cotter, appearing in the print edition of August 13, was headlined, “Do Classic Paintings Get a Pass?” Citing new attitudes brought on by the #MeToo movement, Cotter calls Titian’s erotics a “blindness” that “put us on red alerts” and should probably be “call[ed] out.” The Times’s co-chief art critic is careful never actually to denounce Titian and his paintings. It’s still uncool to be a philistine or a prude. Nevertheless, in this cultural moment, there is an implicit threat within his accusation of ethical stain.
It speaks to the power of Titian’s psychological realism that his paintings engage us as they do, despite these efforts.
Perhaps of more consequence is that this strategy of hedging, of not saying precisely what one means, is duplicated by the Gardner itself, which, unlike the National Gallery or the Prado, saw fit to commission two “responses” to Titian’s depiction of Ovid’s ancient tales by contemporary artists. The first, a banner designed by Barbara Kruger and hung at the entrance to the museum, superimposes the letters “body// lang/ uage” on a cropped and tilted detail of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, in which Actaeon’s knee overlaps with that of a nymph. This is said to “challenge dynamics of gender and power.” The second, a video performance by Mary Reid Kelly and Patrick Kelly, gives us Europa as feminist circa 2021, deadpanning saucy limericks about dribbling body fluids.
Given the seriousness of the topic they feign to approach, these “responses” are remarkable for their emotional apathy. They seem, in fact, to say nothing at all. Insofar as they serve any purpose whatsoever, they do so as institutional mouthpieces, as empty vessels of ironic distance through which the museum positions itself at arm’s length from the Titians it has presented to our view. The implication is that Titian’s paintings, while beautiful and influential, are glorifications of male violence, or otherwise sexist, and thus morally dubious (at best). Clearly, such objects must not be wholeheartedly embraced.
It speaks to the power of Titian’s psychological realism that his paintings engage us as they do, despite these efforts. Against what appears to be the growing consensus, Titian’s paintings do not glorify male sexual violence. Look at Europa’s anguished face, empathize with it, and then look at the eye of the bull. Others have found humor in that eye, and it’s impossible to know what Titian or Philip thought of it. To me, it communicates terror—ferocity and trepidation, as if Jupiter himself is scared of his own power: of what he’s doing and what he is about to do. Despite their consummate formal beauty, the poesie are deeply equivocal as statements of morality. That they were painted for a lusty, hypocritical monarch doesn’t change the fact that, on the evidence of the pictures themselves, Titian’s own sympathies seem to fall on the side of his helpless human victims—male or female—rather than their divine anti-heroes. These are complex, profound works of art.
1 “Titian: Women, Myth & Power” opened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, on August 12, 2021, and remains on view through January 2, 2022.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 46
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