Issue Number: 115
Sheila Hale, who has just spent a decade writing the first biography of Titian in over a century, explains why this artist has been so influential
From the very start of his long career, Titian, who lived from around 1488-90 until 1576, was among the most protean of painters and the most innovative. He was the first Venetian artist to work exclusively in oils, at the time a new medium imported from Flanders, which gave his paintings a dynamic ability to capture movement, colour and light. His first major commission in Venice, the Assumption of the Virgin (1516) in the church of the Frari, was seen as so radical at the time that it shocked the monks for whom it was painted. Whereas previous versions of this scene had been static and calm, here the monumentally sized Virgin twists up through space, rising above the life-size disciples gesturing below, at the level of the congregation. Through them, Titian invites the worshippers to participate in his vision and connects the physical space of the church with the heavenly realm of his painting, breathing life into art. It was this quality that became Titian’s trademark during his long life, even as his painting style evolved almost beyond recognition.
Titian, 'Self-Portrait', 1560s. All rights reserved, DACS 2012. Titian was described in his later years by contemporaries as a miracle of nature, as capturing in paint the paradise of our souls: his flesh so real that you could sense the blood pulsing beneath it; his babies as though fed by real milk; his portraits as lacking only speech. The portraits, of which he painted more than any other artist of genius at the time, were thought to confer immortality on their subjects – and so they have. They depict the most powerful rulers of the 16th century, including the wily old Pope Paul III, the disillusioned Emperor Charles V, and his son Philip II of Spain.
It was Philip who liberated Titian’s painterly imagination even further by allowing him to choose his own subjects and gradually coming to appreciate the new freehanded, suggestive style, painted as Giorgio Vasari said, in blotches, which strikes a chord with artists working today.
Titian sent pictures to Philip from the early 1550s until shortly before his death in 1576. This enlightened patron granted Titian freedom to paint what he wished, how he wished, in his own time. Such independence enabled Titian to experiment, evolving his distinctive and expressionistic late style, with its gestural brushwork, scumbling and even finger painting in parts. Two of his paintings for Philip, Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and Diana and Callisto (1556-59), recently bought for the nation from the Duke of Sutherland, form the centrepieces of this summer’s ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ celebrating Titian in art, dance and music, at the National Gallery.
There is another group of paintings, probably from the last six or so years of his life, that Titian did not send to Philip, whether because they were unfinished or because they were so dark and personal, we do not know. It is well documented that at this time Titian had only partial vision and that his hands trembled. And yet these are the masterpieces that exert the most powerful force for painters, from Rubens, Velásquez and Rembrandt, down the centuries. Sir Joshua Reynolds claimed that he had taken a painting by Titian to pieces to see how he had done it. Lucian Freud, interviewed in this magazine in 2007, concluded that Titian’s paintings are ‘so much better than [those by] almost anyone else because you believe in them more’. But it is by no means only figurative painters who respond to Titian. The American abstract artist Frank Stella, after seeing Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, described it as a work that ‘reveals the blood-filled sinew and bone of pictorial technique, showing us how difficult it is for the artist to nurture and manipulate the body of his creation without mutilating it.’
Few of Titian’s contemporaries understood these late paintings. Although the picture might not have been to the taste of a Spanish ambassador in Venice, he nevertheless put his finger on what it is about them that fascinates us more than four centuries later. ‘Although the bodies are not all there,’ he wrote to a governor of Milan who wanted to buy paintings by Titian, ‘the souls will be, and this is what will give them life.’