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The portrait debate: Giorgione or Titian?

Published 17 February 2016

Who painted this young Venetian nobleman? When it comes to Giorgione, questions of attribution have divided opinion for centuries. We invited two experts to argue it out – read both sides then cast your vote.

  • Giorgione, the key figure in our exhibition exploring the early Venetian Renaissance, remains an enigma. Little is known about his life, and only a few paintings can be attributed to him with certainty.

    The so-called Giustiniani Portrait (below) in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, for example – named after its first documented owners, the Giustiniani family of Padua – was not attributed to Giorgione until the late 19th century. Although many scholars accept the attribution, others suggest that the portrait may instead be by the young Titian.

    In our exhibition, we’ve held to the traditional Giorgione attribution – but we want to have the debate. Here, two experts each make their case; then we want to know what you think. Read both arguments and cast your vote below, or vote on social media using #voteTitian or #voteGiorgione.

  • The case for Giorgione

    The Berlin portrait is an early masterpiece by Giorgione, says art historian Peter Humfrey.

    A century ago a rather large number of paintings were generally accepted by scholars as being by Giorgione. Today many fewer are attributed to him, and several of those once thought to represent his late career – including the Christ and the Adulteress in Glasgow, the Shepherd at Hampton Court, and the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre – are now almost universally regarded as by the young Titian.

    The Giustiniani Portrait is one of the very few paintings that continue to be widely accepted as by Giorgione – to my mind correctly – despite its lack of any early history. Significantly, it is always seen as an early work, close in style to the Castelfranco Altarpiece (below), which is now usually dated to the very beginning of the 16th century, c. 1500. Indeed, despite their completely different subjects, the two works take as their starting point compositional models by Giovanni Bellini, while also revolutionising them. In both works the figures are dreamily introspective, absorbed in thought. Their poses are also passive, with only the slightest indication of movement, and their physiognomies remain slender. Very similar is the way that the left hand of the Virgin and the right hand of the young man are represented in somewhat delicate and tentative foreshortening on top of an almost abstract ledge.

  • The expression and pose of Titian’s Man with the Blue Sleeve are more self-confident and assertive than those of the shy and sensitive youth in Berlin.

    Peter Humfrey

  • The attribution to Giorgione is not, however, universally accepted, and the portrait has also been described as another early work by Titian. The inescapable comparison is with the Man with the Blue Sleeve (below) of c. 1510-12 in the National Gallery, London, in which the sitter likewise wears a doublet of quilted satin, and – in contrast to the portraits by Bellini – looks outwards towards the viewer. Yet the facial expression and pose of Titian’s sitter are much more self-confident and assertive than those of the shy and sensitive youth in Berlin, and engage more frankly and directly with the viewer.

    Compared with the residually linear treatment of the forms and costume in the Giustiniani Portrait, the textures in the London portrait are more richly sensuous and more boldly executed, while the figure is more fleshy and less bony. If the former portrait were by the very young Titian, it would have to have been painted in c. 1509-10 – yet a year or two seems too short an interval to account for the dramatic leap from the one to the other. Instead, the London portrait may be seen as a response by the younger painter, Titian, to the example set by the elder, Giorgione, perhaps as much as a decade earlier.

  • The case for Titian

    Both the style and the composition of the Berlin portrait strongly suggest that it is by the young Titian, argues art historian Paul Joannides.

    When the so-called Giustiniani Portrait first came to light in the 1880s it was as a Sebastiano del Piombo; shortly thereafter it was attributed to Giorgione by Giovanni Morelli, whose unargued opinion generally prevailed until David Rosand and Michelangelo Muraro reattributed it to Titian. The choice rests between Giorgione and Titian; no alternative has been suggested.

    The use of the parapet – which drops out of advanced portraiture by the middle of the second decade – is less dramatic than in Giorgione’s late Self-portrait as David in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Brunswick, or in Titian’s Man with the Blue Sleeve and La Schiavona of c. 1511-12 (above), both in the National Gallery, London, which suggests that it precedes them, if only briefly. In shape and foreshortening the young man’s hand closely resembles that of La Schiavona.

  • The essential quality that reveals Titian’s authorship is the symphonic interaction of flesh, hair, fingernails, chemise and the astonishing quilted jacket.

    Paul Joannides

  • The dating and attribution of portraits by Giorgione is diverse and controversial but there is nothing in even the most expansionist account of his oeuvre with which the Giustiniani Portrait may positively be compared. The unfixed characterisation – delicate, tentative, somewhat abstracted, perhaps melancholic – differs from that of the portraits firmly attributed to him, which are confident and energetic, whereas it is central both to Titian’s Young Man in the Frick Collection, New York, and, later, his Man with the Glove in the Louvre, Paris.

    But the essential quality that reveals Titian’s authorship is the symphonic interaction of flesh, hair, fingernails, chemise and the astonishing quilted jacket, which itself takes on the palpability of flesh. This interplay of forms and textures and the manner in which those textures – which vary internally as well as between one another – are constructed is characteristic of the young Titian’s pictorial tactility, which surpasses anything seen in Giorgione. Thus the gullies in the jacket and the complex forms of the ties are created not by continuous modelling, but by juxtaposed components of purple, applied in streaks and touches of the brush.

    At this time, only Titian could command such impressionistic skills. His virtuosity, seen also in his Christ and the Adulteress in the Glasgow Museums and the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre, and taken to vertiginous heights in the Man with the Blue Sleeve, was to be equalled only by Velázquez.