Titian: Women, Myth, and Power
On ViewIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum
August 12, 2021 – January 2, 2022
Love, loss, pain, desire, hope: these are the strongest emotions that we know. Throughout life, one or more is our constant companion. When the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian (ca. 1490–1576) received his greatest commission in 1550 from Philip II, the future King of Spain (r. 1556–1598), he was clearly involved in thinking through the resulting human problems. Asked to provide large canvases depicting mythological episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to hang together in a palace room, Titian produced scenes that were as deeply humane as they were artistically thrilling. When the commission came to him, Titian was considered old but still in his prime, pushing oil paint to do revolutionary things it had never done before him. Using loose and kinetic brushwork (later, the artist reportedly painted with his fingers and brooms), he presented his courtly audience with life’s ecstasies and tribulations, focused on unequal encounters between mortal and immortal, weak and strong. Although created at the command of a young ruler of unbounded ambitions for domination, the resulting works were forceful embodiments of critical self-examination grounded in lived experience.
And so they remain. Reunited for the first time in nearly five centuries and presented together at three venues (London, Madrid, and, currently, Boston), Titian’s six canvases still testify to what it means to be human. One wonders if Philip, who had not yet experienced power’s costs and disappointments, was ready for them. Although Titian undoubtedly discussed his chosen subjects with Philip and his agents, the artist did not work from a preconceived plan. Judging from surviving letters and technical evidence, he improvised, repeatedly changing his mind about what he painted and how he presented his themes. His reputation as the greatest painter of his time meant that he could paint, in part, to satisfy himself as much as his patron (some testimony suggests that Philip preferred art with more precision). In any case, these works can be read in several ways at once. Some have suggested that they were part of a political spin operation, allegorizing Philip’s virtue and right to rule. Others consider primarily the sensual delight they afford to those who see them—it is not for nothing that they are called Titian’s poesie. I take the view that they were also meant as compelling interventions, reminding Philip of the human stakes inherent in a ruler’s fateful decisions.
Among the six paintings, some pictures register more than others. I appreciate but do not love the Danaë (ca. 1551–53), depicting the princess whose sexual intercourse with Jupiter, who visits her disguised as a shower of gold coins, as an uncomplicated, even pleasurable subjugation (the humorous touch of the elderly maidservant gathering coins in her apron like a procuress underlines this point). In a subsequent work, the badly preserved Perseus and Andromeda (ca. 1554–56) Danaë’s son by Jupiter, Perseus, uses the head of Medusa to slay an aquatic monster, who is ready to devour his future bride, Andromeda. Chained against dark rock so that her pale, naked body can be more readily seen, Andromeda mingles distress with wonderment as she watches Perseus battling her gruesome assailant. She knows her body will be the victor’s prize.
The fraught nature of human circumstance appears more fully in the other works in the series. In the Venus and Adonis (ca. 154), a besotted Venus attempts to keep the handsome Adonis at her side. As Cupid sleeps, Adonis strides past the goddess, looking blandly back into her anxious eyes. He is over her. Abandoning lovemaking for more manly pursuits, he does not know what Venus does: that a boar will kill him.
With the Diana and Actaeon (ca. 1556–59) and the Diana and Callisto (ca. 1556–59), we learn that the cost of maintaining certain taboos and status regulations is cruelty and barbarism. In the former, an unfortunate hunter, Actaeon, stumbles upon the naked Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, and her bathing attendants. As a curtain is pulled away to reveal the party bathing, he is stupefied by the fleshly radiance of those gathered there. But his gesture already hints at the simultaneous realization, evident from the scowling face of the goddess on the right, that he has done something forbidden: one cannot see the goddess naked and live (in another painting, possibly for Philip but never finished, Titian showed how, subsequently, Diana turns the unfortunate Actaeon into a stag and hunts him down with his own hounds). In the Diana and Callisto, one of the goddesses’ attendants, Callisto, triggers Diana’s wrath for something she had no real part in. Having admired her beauty, Jupiter comes to Callisto disguised as Diana, then, having tricked her, gets her pregnant. When Callisto’s fellow nymphs dramatically unveil her swollen belly, Diana casts the distraught Callisto from their virginal band with a fateful leveling of a pointing hand.
In all these pictures, the viewer can get lost in Titian’s sensuous application of paint, as the painter wields his brush as if it were a magic wand. By means of colored streaks and blotches, he forms palpable bodies, lush landscapes, and liquid pools of reflective water; tufts of grass spring up to carry the tread of naked feet at the edge of a stream, and a crystal vase sparkles on the stone step of a sinking ancient fountain. The temptation is to see these pictorial wonderments as sheer performance, touching indifferently on the various things and persons who inhabit these scenes. But one of their lessons may well be that beauty is as arbitrary as the love and death meted out here, and that life does not deliver pleasure unmixed with opposite strains.
With female beauty a major subject of these works, it is also easy to decide that they speak only to men of women. In the best picture in the series, the Rape of Europa (ca. 1559–62), one can find cause for that position. After all, Titian sets a tragedy, an abduction and rape, in a gorgeous setting, a sea bordered by radiant skies and distant mountains. Having disguised himself as a white bull, Jupiter once again carries away his prize, in this case the princess Europa. We see her maidservants gesticulating on the receding shoreline as the bull swims through foaming waters inhabited by fish of scaly opalescence. Vainly, Europa waves a pink veil in the wind, desperate to maintain contact with her fading homeland—even as cupids shoot their arrows to make her receptive to Jupiter’s attentions. By presenting distressed Europa almost nude on her back, legs spread, and breast bared, Titian invites the misogynist pleasure that some period viewers may have taken in this theme. But this painting is no mere erotic divertissement. Looking again, one notices the bulging, glistening eye of the bull which ominously brims with unseeing lust and animal unfeeling, and one realizes Europa’s plight has not been forgotten. And wherever you look in the series, Titian allows us insights into multiple perspectives and motivations. All sides have their say. If these six paintings have a collective meaning it may be this: the gods mock us, making us pawns of fate, power, and especially passion. Yet, wherever we end up, Titian is there, comprehending everything.