Art History Mini-essay: Titian
Venice in the mid-1500s found itself virtually unchallenged as the primary art center of the high and late Renaissance, producing paintings of great skill and innovation. Strangely, for a city with very little landscape of its own, Venetian artists such as Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione featured nature very heavily in their paintings: Bellini placed his holy figures amid inventive and imaginary landscapes, and the short-lived Giorgione's most famous painting features a moody, humid, lightning-illuminated landscape centering around a mysterious gypsy woman.
But it would be Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian as he's known in English, who would be the dominant painter of Venice. His career spanned 68 very productive years. He had a strong feel for color, making his paintings strikingly vivid and appealing. He developed a new style of brushstroke that, in the words of Frederick Hartt, converted the brush into a "vehicle for the direct perception of light through color and for the unimpeded expression of feeling."
Stories about Titian's technique tell of him turning his paintings to the wall for months, before beginning work on them with renewed ferocity. He frequently layered on thin "veils" of colored glazes - reportedly twenty, or even thirty. His desire was not for colors that lept out at the viewer, but rather sought to deepen, enrich, and unify the colors in his compositions.
Titian painted the so-called "Gypsy Madonna" in 1510. Instead of keeping with tradition and having the figures remain in the center of the composition with the cloth of honor falling behind the figures, he pushes them to one side. Instead of feeling off-balance, the strong diagonals that appear in the middle distance of the landscape provide enough of a balance to keep the painting from feeling too skewed or that the figures are hanging off into space.
This is Sacred and Profane Love, painted by Titian in 1514. Reams of writing on what the allegory means have been written, with few conclusions about it. I included it because it's simply a lovely painting, although if I had known how difficult it would be to find a decent image of this on the web, I'd have scanned my postcard.
The Madonna of the Pesaro is one of the best paintings to talk about how Titian uses diagonals and triangles to enhance the monumentality of this painting. Painted from 1519 to 1526, it features a member of the powerful Pesaro family presenting a war captive to the Virgin. The Madonna's downward gaze indicates one diagonal as she gazes on one of her supplicants. She also is the apex of a triangle between herself and the two kneeling men.
Titian was a student of Giorgione, and may have finished Giorgione's painting of a sleeping woman. Later, he would return to the subject, but he would not slavishly imitate it. Where Giorgione's woman sleeps quietly in a landscape, and the overall feeling is drowsy and soft, Titian's woman is awake, and staring boldly out at the viewer with a challenging gaze. The colors are more vivid, less muted. Titian's painting is titled Venus of Urbino, but it doesn't seem to actually have been the original name of the painting, and indeed the woman herself seems very much of this world. Her servants work efficently behind her, and a fluffy lapdog lies curled asleep on her bed. She seems much more like the lovely mistress of a powerful man, secure and rather pleased by her earthly beauty.
Giorgione's Sleeping Woman
Titian's Venus of Urbino
As Titian aged, his painting style changed to a brushier, looser style. His awareness of the nearness of his own death seems to have made him focus, much like Michelangelo at the end of his life, on the death of Christ. Titian painted several works featuring the Passion of Christ and the Pieta, and no patron is known for them - they seem to have been painted out of his own needs.
The Crowning of Thorns, from 1570, uses thick impasto, blue, red, and yellow glazes, and a looser hand to depict Christ being brutalized by his captors. The staffs of the men come together in interlocking triangles that seem to form an impenetrable barrier around the figure of Christ. The colors are far more muted and severe.
The Pieta, painted for his tomb in 1576, was left incomplete when the artist died of the plague. He painted himself into the scene as St. Jerome, kneeling imploringly at the feet of the dead body of Christ. In the half-dome above Mary and Christ, a pelican wounding her breast to feed her children is seen - a common motif representing self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. The painting is anchored by the Madonna and her son, and again Titian uses diagonals - the outstretched body of St. Jerome, the outstretched hand of Mary Magdalene, the floating cherub with the torch - to draw attention in towards the most important figures in the painting.