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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Titian (ca. 1485/90?–1576)

Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1485/90?–1576), known as Titian, was the greatest Venetian artist of the sixteenth century, eventually gaining international fame. Titian is known above all for his remarkable use of color; his painterly approach was highly influential well into the seventeenth century. Titian contributed to all of the major areas of Renaissance art, painting altarpieces, portraits, mythologies, and pastoral landscapes with figures.

Early Works
Titian trained under two other seminal Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini (active by 1459, died 1516) and Giorgione (1477/78–1510). The latter, with whom Titian also collaborated, was influential for his tonal approach to painting and for his landscape style, which was atmospheric and evocative. The two artists worked in such a similar manner that the line between them has been hard to fix: this is true especially for some pastoral landscapes, in which the beauty of nature is celebrated alongside love and music. Titian’s drawings of this period, such as Landscape with a Goat (1991.462) and Two Satyrs in a Landscape (1999.28), are such pastoral landscapes, the latter with mythological figures in a lush landscape whose untamed beauty contrasts with a carefully balanced arrangement.

Titian and Altarpiece Painting
Titian’s first major public commission in Venice, the Assumption of the Virgin for the high altar of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (1516–18), established his place as the leading painter of the city. Contemporaries noted that some viewers were uneasy with its novel portrayal of the dynamically twisting Virgin and the gesticulating apostles below. It broke with tradition as well in the heroic scale of the figures and the use of bold color. The Assumption can be seen from the far end of the church, drawing the eye to the sacred space of the altar. Titian went on to paint other influential altarpieces, above all the Death of Saint Peter Martyr for the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (1526–30, destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century), which Vasari thought the artist’s greatest work.

Titian and Portraiture
Titian achieved international fame through his numerous portraits, including those of Emperor Charles V, who wished to be painted by no other artist, and Pope Paul III. Titian’s portraits are remarkable for the way in which they seem to express a psychological dimension while also suggesting something of the sitter’s status and importance. His earliest portraits (14.40.640) follow Giorgione in the melancholy or dreamy mood portrayed. In the portrait of Filippo Archinto (14.40.650), the gravity and importance of this archbishop of Milan is suggested by the monumentality of his presence and the subdued palette, while our attention is drawn to the sensitively portrayed hands and face.

Mythology and Poesia
Titian also painted works with mythological subjects for domestic settings; he often called these “poesie,” likening them to visual poetry. Of these, some of the most beautiful were painted as a series of Bacchanals for Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara from around 1518. In Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London), Bacchus is shown leaping from his chariot, startling the lovely Ariadne. Titian derived the subject matter from literary descriptions of classical works of art.

Venus, the mythological goddess of love, is the protagonist of a number of works by Titian, the best known probably being the so-called Venus of Urbino (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Painted for Francesco Maria I della Rovere’s private chambers, this reclining nude is at once idealized and erotic. Later in his career, Titian turned to the theme in paintings for his most important patrons, such as Philip II of Spain. As often happened in his workshop, variants would then be carried out for others. This is the case in both Venus and the Lute Player (36.29) and Venus and Adonis (49.7.16).