Written by Huong Vu
Edited by Miray Eroglu
Titian (1490-1576) was one of the most important painters and renowned portraitists of the Renaissance, the age of cultural and artistic ‘rebirth’ in Europe. Titian’s two paintings: Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (1516) (Fig. 1) and Portrait of Pietro Aretino (1537) (Fig. 2) are displayed on each side of Giovanni Bellini’s The Ecstasy of St. Francis (1475–1480) at The Frick Collection in New York City.[i] This arrangement that juxtaposes youth and maturity demonstrates Titian’s stylistic development throughout his long reign over the Venetian school of painting in the sixteenth century. Titian’s late painterly style has been attracting art historians, who account the stylistic changes to various narrations, one being the portrayal of Titian as the “greedy old man”,[ii] others emphasizing his weakening physical conditions, or his change of perception in relation to changes in emerging artistic trends. This close study of his famous painting Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555) (Fig. 5) and other portraits will construct a clearer portrayal of Titian in his later years.
In The Lives Of The Painters, Sculptors And Architects (abridged as Lives), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) hailed the third generation of Renaissance artists and craftsmen, with Leonardo da Vinci as the leader, as the generation whose “modern manner” of painting could rival antiquity, mimic nature and breath more life than ever before.[iii] Venice, under this international influence, witnessed the painters develop new techniques in designs and colouring, as seen in the artworks of Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione. As the head of the Bellini workshop, the largest art workshop in Venice since the fifteenth century, Giovanni Bellini developed a technique using oil paint instead of the traditional medium tempera, which involved gradually applying thin washes of paint in order to create depth, fluidity and vivid colors. Starting his career as Bellini’s pupil, in his early years, Titian also used Giovanni’s colouring techniques with washes of colour thinly applied on top of each other, from light to dark. In the Portrait of a Man with a Red Cap (Fig. 1), soft and blended colours show the meticulous and painstaking process which Titian strived for in his early works. The young man in the portrait possesses a seductive youthfulness and lovely nature, with a relaxed facial expression, masculine jawline, dreamy gaze and his hands gently hold the sword. Soft lights linger on his face, hitting his garments and illuminating the fur lining of his coat and gold shirt. Great attention to detail is shown in the portrait, seen in the locks of the young man’s hair and each strand of the fur coat shows the incredibly delicate coloring technique of Titian.
On the other hand, the latter Portrait of Pietro Aretino (1537) (Fig. 2) was painted more than 20 years later in 1537, during the period of Titian’s “International Fame” from 1530-1543.[iv] Although the two portraits are similar in composition, the older man appears different, holding an assertive gaze with the gold chain on his neck, which was a gift from Francis I, King of France. The painting also has a darker palette. After years of perfecting his craft, having achieved recognition from the richest and most powerful patrons all over Europe, it seems like Titian had developed in his own technique and had adopted a more relaxed and effortless style. The portrait has a rougher texture with larger and more pronounced brush strokes; the background colour is not as blended as in the previous portrait, but by no means less delicate. The fur on his coat seems silky soft and sumptuous and his sleeves, although highlighted with spontaneous strokes, still look rich and luxurious. This portrait does not fully reflect Titian’s late style, especially his final works, which have even more prominent, large strokes and blurry details, but the comparison between two portraits set the tone for the narration of Titian’s stylistic and technical development at the height of his career in the 1550s.
Many art historians attribute Titian’s late style to the last 25 years of his life, from around 1550;[v] the foundation of the change in his technique began in the 1540s around the time of his journey to Rome. During this period, he developed a “monumental figural concept” and a technique “subtly modelled by light and dark”,[vi] as he got a chance to see firsthand and study from figures of antiquity and from the works of central Italian artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. After experimenting with this central Italian style, Titian decided to develop his own technique and thus, his “manner of painting became looser, brushwork more visible, surface more sensual”[vii] and more closely resembled the spontaneity of nature. A common evaluation of Titian’s late style from his contemporaries, would be that it perfectly portrays nature, is dynamic and breathes live through the rough texture and brilliant colour.[viii] This style differs from precedents Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione as it does not have a smooth, airbrushed finish but rather bears the unique marks of Titian, breathing life into two-dimensional paintings.[ix] Titian’s late style is, however, often criticised for its unfinished look, attributed to Titian’s heightened financial interest and weakening physical conditions.
The narration that it was Titian’s desire for monetary gain that interfered with his arts-making process came from various sources, including Titian’s close companion and “literary propagandist”,[x] Pietro Aretino (1492-1556). In a letter to Titian, Aretino expressed his displeasure of Portrait of Pietro Aretino (1545) (Fig. 3) commissioned to Titian, claiming that it was a sketch rather than a finished painting and that the rich, luxurious fabric of Aretino’s clothing was understated.[xi] In another letter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Aretino expressed the same frustration, stating that it was because he did not pay Titian enough that the artist left his portrait unpolished. Aretino claimed that the rough brushwork did not do justice to his garment, although the man in the portrait breathes life just as any other works by the brilliant hands of Titian.[xii] Indeed, the portrait has thick brush strokes instead of subtle highlights. The thick texture of the paint is visible just from looking at the digital copy of the painting. Titian’s change in painterly style is clearer when we compare this portrait with the one painted a few years earlier by Titian (c.1537) (Fig. 2); the difference between the two garments is especially noticeable. The latter portrait also has a reduced colour palette; with only earthy shades of brown and brick red, it creates the perfect harmony. The viewers do not focus on the details of the clothing but are drawn by the assured, confident gaze of a powerful, dominant man in the portrait. Rather than portraying wealth, Titian captured Aretino’s spirit on the canvas with the firm gaze and intense colour scheme. Art historian Philip Sohm argues that the purpose of the letter was not to undermine Titian’s talent or declare the artist no more competent of creating greatness; instead, Aretino wanted to subtly remind Cosimo I de’ Medici of a pending payment for a painting that Titian previously sent him.[xiii]
Letters are interesting and reliable gateways to access the past as they help reconstruct the everyday lives in the Renaissance; however, how they are interpreted can be problematic, as Renaissance senders wrote them with the awareness that they were public tools of communication that could be and were often, published.[xiv] Therefore, personal letters from the Renaissance should also be considered as publicity tools. Other letters sent to and by Titian also supports the argument that Titian let his financial interest in the way of his artistic expression. In one letter to Philip II (King of Spain, 1527-1598), Titian demanded replies for his previous letters and feedback from the king, including a vow to devote his last years to please the patron and live longer just to serve him. In this letter, Titian exaggerated his old age to bring attention to his diligent dedication and casually brought up the unfavourable exchange rate from the payment of Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1548–1559).[xv] By bringing age his into the conversation, Titian must have hoped that it would compel Philip II to be a more generous patron.
Titian’s late style was also suspected to be the result of his carelessness, as he wanted to finish more works in less time. With an established reputation and the title “Prince of Painters”,[xvi] any painting by Titian would have valued a great amount; additionally, with the huge volume of commissions he got from international patrons, more paintings done in less time would equate to more profit.[xvii] One of Titian’s most influential patrons, Philip II, participated in the narrative that Titian was rushing to complete his paintings. Regarding Titian’s second portrait of Philip II (fig. 4), the patron wrote to his aunt, Mary of Hungary, to express his displeasure because the portrait looked like it was done in a hurry, and he would like to have it remade if there had been time.[xviii] This time, although the painting is detailed and opulent, brilliantly mimicking the coldness and luxury of the steel armour and the warm yet dignified expression of Philip II, the Spanish king expected the Bellini-influenced-early-Titian-style, which was seen in the portrait of his father, Charles V in 1533 and in Phillip II’s first portrait painted in 1548.[xix] The looseness of his painterly technique, along with the new focus on texture and “suggest[ion] of shapes and surfaces”[xx] was not familiar to Philip II. However, his contemporaries, most notably Vasari, had recognized the innovation in Titian’s late style.
Vasari distinguished Titian’s late style from the painterly technique of his younger days and divided the late style into two separate periods. The “first late style” was from 1550 to 1561, which was at the peak of Titian’s career, characterized by the seemingly effortless yet intricate appearance and a meticulous, painstaking process; the second phase was from 1561 to Titian’s death in 1576. In appreciation of Titian’s brilliance in “concealing the labour”,[xxi] in 1566, Vasari juxtaposed the two “late style” periods, stating:
“[His] early works are executed with a certain finesse and an incredible diligence so that they can be seen from close to as well as from a distance; the last pictures are executed with broad and bold strokes and smudges, so that from nearby nothing can be seen whereas from a distance they seem perfect. This method of painting has caused many artists, who have wished to imitate him and thus display their skill, to produce clumsy pictures.”[xxii]
The switch in Titian’s painting technique in his later years from delicate to bold strokes marks the development of his career from Bellini’s pupil to a matured artist with his own technique. The contradiction between the painting process and the paintings themselves prevented other painters from copying his works, which further emphasized his status as the master painter. Therefore, instead of a sign of his impotent old age, weakening hands and poor eyesight, Titian’s “second late style” was the achievement of mastery, although it was not always understood and appreciated by his contemporaries.
Titian was famous for exaggerating his age, as he never publicized his true age. He died in 1576, at the age of 103, according to his death certificate, although art historian Philip Sohm suggested that it was just an invention. In 1559, Garcia Hernandez, Philip II’s secretary noted that Titian was more than 85; a revision in 1564 stated that Titian’s age was 83. It seems that Titian had the habit of exaggerating his age the older he got, as he declared to be 95 in 1576, five years before his death.[xxiii] Age in the Renaissance was not carefully reported; thus, it can only be an approximation, but it is a subject of interest due to the stylistic changes towards the end of his career. Moreover, while other artists of his time preferred downplaying their aging process,[xxiv] Titian emphasized his age, as seen from the letters, to call for sympathy and request for more money from his patrons.
Titian’s mythological paintings that take inspiration from classical literature,[xxv] are the works that most skillfully celebrate the beauty of nature and the human body. One of Titian’s most famous mythological painting is Venus with a Mirror (Fig. 5), which was found in Titian’s house after his death and is currently displayed in the National Gallery in Washington.[xxvi] This work, painted circa 1555, is emblematic of Titian’s “first late style” period. Venus is sitting in the pudica position,[xxvii] her left hand softly covers her breasts and her right hand holds her beautiful, sumptuous bordeaux-coloured cover. She is the embodiment of perfection, with a light blush and glowing skin. Her jewelry is opulent with pearls and gold, yet still delicate, accentuating her beauty. One Cupid is in the front, holding up the mirror while the other Cupid reaches up to crown Venus, to further adorn her perfection. Her left hand spreading out over her chest, suggesting that Venus is admiring her own beauty. This composition inspired many of Titian’s contemporaries, such as Veronese, Tintoretto, and his successors: Anthony van Dyck and Velazquez.[xxviii]
It has been suggested that this painting only served an aesthetic function.[xxix] However, it does revisit the paragone (“comparison”) debate of superiority between painting and sculpture from the early sixteenth century.[xxx] Venus turns her left side towards the viewers while the mirror reveals the rest of her perfection. Venus with a Mirror challenges the argument for sculpture in the paragone debate, proving that paintings can also achieve the three-dimensional effect like sculptures. Positioned in the foreground, the mirror directly engages with Venus, as opposed to being a mere decoration piece, as in other contemporary works.[xxxi] This shows Titian’s originality in his composition and his particular interest in old age and death as inevitable outcomes of youth and beauty. In depicting a reflection of vanity in the mirror, Titian encourages the viewers to distant themselves from vain pursuits. In this painting, despite the softness and gentle colouring that perfectly fits the image of Venus, the signature of Titian’s late style is evident through the large brushstrokes in the background and fabrics, as well as the multidimensional and lifelike quality that makes the figures seem like they are moving.
It is evident how Titian used age as a tool to influence his patrons and the public audience. By publicizing his aging process, Titian suggested his maturity and mastery in painting, challenged other painters to compete with his genius yet effortless brushwork and urged viewers to look at art to self-reflect. Venus with a Mirror corresponds perfectly to this interpretation of Titian’s late style because it depicts the reflection on the perfection of beauty. Due to his awareness of his age and weakening physical conditions, Titian grew even more appreciative of natural beauty; thus, his painting, Venus with a Mirror, carries an allegorical meaning and compels the viewers to have the same appreciation for youth.
[i] The Frick Collection, 2016, “Living Hall | The Frick Collection,” Frick Collection, http://www.frick.org/visit/virtual_tour/living_hall.
[ii] Philip L. Sohm, The Artist Grows Old (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 84.
[iii] Giorgio Vasari, trans. A.B. Hinds, The Lives Of The Painters, Sculptors And Architects (London: J.M. Dent, 1927).
[iv] Titian’s international fame spread from his early success at the court of Ferrara d’Este, from whence he started to paint portraits for various royalty and rulers of Europe.
[v] Sylvia Ferino Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Sciré, Late Titian And The Sensuality Of Painting (Venice: Marsilio, 2008), 15-19.
[vi] Ferino-Pagden et al., Late Titian And The Sensuality Of Painting, 17.
[vii] Ferino-Pagden et al., Late Titian And The Sensuality Of Painting, 17.
[viii] Bruce Cole, Titian And Venetian Painting, 1450-1590 (Boulder, Colorado: Icon Editions, 1999), 138-48.
[ix] Cole, Titian And Venetian Painting, 1450-1590, 139.
[x] Tom Nichols, Titian and The End of The Venetian Renaissance, (London: Reakton Books LTD, 2003).
[xi] Cole, Titian And Venetian Painting, 1450-1590, 139.
[xii] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 84.
[xiii] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 83-103.
[xiv] Especially writers like Aretino wrote letters with the purpose to have them published.
Chriscinda Henry “Pietro Aretino“, Lecture, Feb 2016, McGill University, Montreal.
[xv] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 85-7.
[xvi] This is the title of the National Gallery’s exhibition in 1990.
[xvii] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 84-5.
[xviii] Cole, Titian And Venetian Painting, 1450-1590, 165.
[xix] Cole, Titian And Venetian Painting, 1450-1590, 164.
[xx] Cole, Titian And Venetian Painting, 1450-1590, 165.
[xxi] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 77-82.
[xxii] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 77-82.
[xxiii] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 83-4.
[xxiv] Sohm, The Artist Grows Old, 83-4.
[xxv] Fernando Checa, “Titian’s Mythological Inventions And Poesie”. In Late Titian And The Sensuality Of Painting, 1st ed. (Venice: Marsilio, 2008), 187-93.
[xxvi] Fern Rusk Shapley, “Titian’s Venus With A Mirror”, Studies In The History Of Art 1971-1972, 12: 93-105.
[xxvii] Venus pudica, “shy Venus,” is the term for the classical Western pose in which a nude female covers her private parts with her hands. This pose can also be seen in Botticello’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486).
[xxviii] Irina Artemieva, The Barberigo Venus with a Mirror and the Dialogo della pittura by Lodovico Dolce, 195.
[xxix] Andreas Prater, Venus At Her Mirror: Velázquez And The Art Of Nude Painting (Munich: Prestel, 2002), 14-20.
[xxx] Chriscinda Henry, “Titan’s Late Mythological Paintings: Istorie, Poesie And Erotic Transformation”. Lecture, Feb 2016, McGill University, Montreal.
[xxxi] Irina Artemieva, “The Barberigo Venus with a Mirror and the Dialogo della pittura by Lodovico Dolce”, in Late Titian And The Sensuality Of Painting, 1st ed. (Venice: Marsilio, 2008), 196-8.