A recent exhibition of drawings by David Smith consisted entirely of female nudes. A reviewer for The New York Times, after rightly noting that this theme is not generally associated with Smith, went on to explain that the nude is nevertheless a major focus of Western art, and so is likely to appear in any artist’s work. So, too, the man in the street, when he happens to think about artists and imagine himself being one, is not wrong to dream at once that he is drawing naked women. Besides the basic element of sensual pleasure, a factor of envious respect for the skilled craftsman who is so privileged is involved.
Yet in the history of Western painting, the female nude was not usual until Titian (1487-1576) made it so. Earlier it was a rare and special case, eccentric in an artist’s production. Today Botticelli is best known for the Birth of Venus; but it is almost unique among his productions and in his time was not the most famous. It was not Titian’s way, to be sure, to be assertive about novel subjects, and he did not abruptly invent this one. It is more plausible to think of his great forerunner Giorgione as the trailblazer. Titian then developed many variations and references, and the importance of the nude to his art, if not its newness at the time, is always recognized. One of his nudes is on the cover of the catalogue of the current Titian exhibition in Washington, and another was on the cover of the recent book about him by Charles Hope, a contributor to the Washington catalogue, as others have been on still earlier books. Besides aiming to catch buyers, these are legitimately illustrative of the contents, and in the Washington case the painting is also one of the National Gallery of Art’s own finest Titians.
This painting, Venus with a Mirror, also presents intimately the issue of nudity in the specific sense of absence of clothing, as we learn from the catalogue entry. In general the catalogue is very good on technical reports, and in this instance informs us that the painting’s chief figure was clothed in an earlier draft, in a transparent underdress, lately revealed by X-rays. Still more remarkably, there was even a previous painting on this canvas, on which Titian had begun a completely different subject. A man’s velvet coat from that work was saved, and is still visible on the surface, where it is a wrap around Venus’s hips. The catalogue reports this without comment, as a conservation specialist’s fact, but it should not be left simply implying that Titian was deft about economizing. He was no doubt too happy with the passage to destroy it, and in the final version accentuated it through the side-by-side rendering of the flesh.
In the history of Western painting, the female nude was not usual until Titian.
Titian criticism does not have a particularly sophisticated tradition. Most early writers simply praised the alive effect of everything, and this, even though it was a cliche of the period for any artist, is probably more to the point than the modern substitution of praise for his color. This, again, is a common response to many artists of our mainstream tradition. To praise the color of Rothko, or, more relevantly, of Matisse—Titian’s most notable heir as a painter of female nudes in our context—should instantly suggest how different Titian’s way with color is, and how inadequate the formula is for him. Titian’s constantly active surfaces involve the color areas with a rare range of textures. This begins, plainly, with paint texture, for he is also the pioneer in our tradition of “painterly painting.” It is well understood that in his career we can steadily see the autonomous brush stroke becoming more and more self-assured. This is the model for the execution of painting that his successors have particularly followed and in the process paid conscious homage to Titian. But if we turn to the brushy textures of French masters from Delacroix and Manet to Vuillard and Matisse, it becomes striking how, relatively speaking, their painterly surfaces in a given painting show a uniform all-over texture. Though not to an absolute extent, areas of diverse hue, scale, distance, and the like will show a similar fatness of paint, planarity, and so on. This is justified, with respect to the representation of diverse objects, by the understanding that what is really being rendered is always light, in the formula most familiar with the Impressionists.
Titian, though their ancestor, was also actively concerned with the distinctions not only between velvet and human skin, but hair and pearls, iron and stone, grass and bark. To juxtapose two or three such surfaces in tight association is one of his prime ways of calling us to respond pleasurably. He adds to visual stimuli those that call up in us the memory of touch, for every one of these surfaces is of a nice kind, a restriction that ought to be pointed out too. They are reinforced, in case we might still not take them in, by passing through a light filter which marks them as gleams and sparks, token of a link to movement and thus to life.
Titian was also not the inventor of such textural differentials, of course. Jan van Eyck is only the most conspicuous of his predecessors, and was not only a total master of such effects, but of letting light extend them from plain reporting to excited celebration as something valuable. Titian had access to works produced in Jan’s tradition, if not to his own, and surely respected them, a connection that remains to be explored in the literature. That is probably because the two artists differ so in paint application, and that factor has dominated the criteria for assigning historical linkage in the era in question. Jan presents his textures with what we call a “tight”brush stroke, and his few followers in modern times—the most obvious, though only partial, such imitator is probably Dali —largely for that reason are rated as not modern. Titian, however, brought a perhaps unique power to a synergy of variable textural imitation and “Impressionist”brush-work. Even his earliest great successor, Rubens, though not yet influenced by the view that things ought not to be imitated by an ambitious artist, shifted the balance far toward the single-note brush stroke. To be Jan van Eyck and Rubens in one—what a tour de force, and Titian did it!
Titian belongs to an astonishing small group of artists who define the peak of artistic achievement in their time.
The very earliest significant writer on Titian, his personal friend Pietro Aretino, provided a model of focusing his admiration on the renderings of textures that has been little followed. The catalogue of the exhibition rightly quotes several such passages. In one he speaks together of “the crimson of the garment”of a saint and “a lynx,”in another of an angel’s cheeks which tremulously combine “milk and blood"—the commentator unfortunately labels this an effort to isolate the artist’s use of color—in another he speaks of the artist’s “sense of things in his brush.”
One of the better reasons for bringing Titian’s works together in an exhibition is perhaps the opportunity it offers to see many very diverse such “things in the brush,” evoking the artist’s versatile command. In the St. Jerome from the Thyssen collection it is, unexpectedly, the old hermit’s sagging skin and the pulled strokes of tree branches (along with the crucifix); they remind us that all this is additionally in the service of the drama of human experience, as for all Renaissance painting. When a saint gives alms to a beggar, the tiny gleam of the silver coin’s edge at the center of the composition lets the lighted matter focus the drama and the moral too. In the huge painting of Tityus, naked and sprawling, still a system of muscles while he yields to the eternal torture in hell of having his intestines bitten out by a vulture, there is a similar dark glint of a link of chain, but everything else—in this rare subject —tells of the body as tragic fete. The moral is that this is the sentence for a crime, Tityus having tried to rape Latona, the mother of Apollo. The artist’s analysis certainly is more complex than in the more frequent female nudes.
These male figures, naked, clothed, or in between, suffer or work out their lives alone. The more numerous females are generally accompanied by male figures, whom they usually dominate. As the Venus in Washington checks her face in the mirror, she has a small naked boy hold that heavy object at the best angle, while another one stretches to cover her head with the wreath, the crown that explains to us what her concern is, her royal primacy in physical beauty. Another Venus, in the Borghese Gallery, in a grouping that has baffled all interpreters, blindfolds the same little boy—who is an analogue to the very young pages who attend on generals in other images—while a pair of young women approach with expressions of adoration. The grand nude Venus relaxing on a couch, from the Prado, has as her one occupation listening to the music played by an organist; she is the person of leisure, he is the employee. He pauses from performing the music for a moment, very possibly while a chord is fading off, and seizes the occasion, just at the present time of the painting, to stare at her, inspecting the part of her body he would not otherwise see. Venus is naked because that is her mythological attribute, but at the same time the event of the organ recital is of the modern world; Titian is like other artists of his time in making the ambiguity serve him.
Many writers, not only feminist ones, have reasonably seen the result as a visual metaphor of the nude being, for Titian’s clients, in the first instance a picture of a sex object, and this emphasis is quite plain in writings of the time, quoted in the catalogue. The implication would then seem to be that the role of the various male figures in the same paintings also calls for analysis; that this has not happened in feminist writing is natural enough, as much because of its specialist limits as because the paintings have become counters in a “political agenda.” By the same token, however, such readings evidently could not claim to have come closer to a more complete reading of the historical conditions that the works document than before, even while they have the merit of implying this second issue. Supplied with these male servants, the naked women have built on their role as sex objects to become so many Pompadours, controlling exploited labor—of both sexes—among whom the adult male gets some of his pay metaphorically in a fantasy of sexual happiness. Rather than a scenario worked up by Titian or his clients, this no doubt relates to the Venetian phenomenon of the grand courtesan, such as the especially famous Veronica Franco who received the King of France in her fine house, for conversation only, and gave him a copy of her poems. Titian does not seem to explore the related convention of his era, of the male reduced to slavery by the desired woman, Samson reduced to imprisonment by Delilah being one of the many such, often presented as a group. (This is however a woodcut of this subject after his design.) More interestingly, when the male figure with the naked female gets a major role, he may be Tarquin. The story of his rape of Lucretia, also a theme for Shakespeare not many years later, is the only theme of Titian’s of which the exhibition offers us two related variant paintings. She is once nude and once clothed. Titian departs from the most usual moment of the story in his culture, when she commits suicide, which was explicitly a moral of the virtue enjoined on women by men. Borrowing instead the design of a tiny German engraving, in both cases, as scholars have discovered, he reports the moment of the attack itself, with Tarquin pointing his dagger; as he swings his arm back, his weapon is the object nearest us. In the wrinkled velvet clothes that mark the vibrating of his body, he confronts the resisting but failing Lucretia, both in graphic profile.
Presuming, as we should, that a male audience is expected, it emerges that the moral is to indict Tarquin for sin against the woman whose humanity he does not see, but which we do. It is the step preceding the punishment of Tityus for the attempted rape and, even more vividly, that shown in the Judith with the head of Holofernes, from Detroit. In the story, her decapitation of the amorous male is possible because she had rightly assumed he would invite her to his bed, and when he had drunk a great deal she performed what was fundamentally a political assassination of her national enemy. Contrary to the tradition of his time, Titian shows her smiling, in three-quarter length, looking out at us, a queen meeting her admiring people. By a variation that continues to baffle observers, the smooth and finished modeling of her face contrasts in an extreme way with the sketchy roughness of his, held in front of her as an attribute. The splintered grayish strokes closely resemble those used throughout the clothed version of the Lucretia. One art-historical explanation, that the work was done at two widely separated times in Titian’s career, seems not to survive in recent discussion. It is more plausible that the painting was not finished, except for the focal center of the heroine’s face, something that is quite likely to have happened in the Metropolitan Museum’s Venus too. Here, however, we seem to have a case like those of Michelangelo’s unfinished works, in which the image is expressively complete. And it is possible that Titian too may have registered that circumstance, despite the violation of craft norms of the time. The great Flaying of Marsyas hung nearby, a rough sketch throughout, also reports the torture and death of a sinner, in this case one whose crime was against art.
Among Titian’s nude themes, it is the story of Danae, ofwhich he painted three versions, that seems to have involved him most. It was common for him to paint later versions of his works for other clients, but the major revisions in both the second and third are unique in his work. It is too bad that only the first is in the exhibition, for comparisons in such cases are one of the best justifications for such shows, and a room of the three of them would have been glorious. Each version, as all agree, is more fluid and spontaneous in painting than the one before, and it seems plausible that this quality is connected with the theme, where Danae is both aware and comfortable about the god’s sexual approach. No male figure is present, other than the standard naked small boy in the first version; in the others, a busy old woman replaces him, and the unusual all-female world ruled by Danae seems in tune with the special effect of harmonious mutuality in the experience. Zeus, as the myth requires, arrives in the bodiless form of a spatter of gold coins, again glinting, as a small-scale central key to the story. He is thus lessened visually, yet heightened as a mobile actor. We might read him as money, and it has been argued that the reference again is to courtesans. It is certainly different from paintings with rapes that are going to be punished, or have been, or Diana’s punishment of the intrusive Actaeon that Titian also explored more than once.
While the image of money may be relevant to the clients, Titian’s own quiet life suggests another aspect. He differed in this way from all his peers, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, who traveled to get to the great jobs, entrepreneurial buccaneers of art, a bit like unattached oil riggers or other much sought-after skilled producers in our time. Titian was so domestic that he stayed in his house with his rather large family, not only receiving friends and important callers there, but requiring nearly all his grand clients to have their paintings shipped. We have no information, as usual, about the personality of Cecelia, his wife, but it seems likely that her husband at any rate found life as described satisfying. He married her after they had lived together and had children, a phenomenon less common then than now. For whatever reason, the Danae especially suggests that Titian wanted to think about women’s experience, and whether or not he succeeded, he produced a rare image trying to do so, one that may be compared with Joyce’s reading of Molly Bloom. To be sure, he was not an absolute innovator here either, being indebted to a Danae by Correggio as well as Michelangelo’s Leda.
On the other hand, a more limited reading of what he is doing may be supported by the analogy of the portrait, not in the exhibition, he did at the same time as the first Danae for the same client, Pope Paul III with his grandsons (sweetly transformed into nephews in the exhibition catalogue). The bent, aged pope clutches the arms of his chair, one youth bows extraordinarily low, the other stands back in shadow. Writers have been almost unanimous in reading senility, sycophancy and corruption here, as in a clear-eyed political satire. Yet as Francis Haskell has also observed, that is not credible in a commissioned and accepted work for a great client from whom Titian sought favors (a well-paying job for his son); to think of it as speaking out against the establishment too quickly imposes our “good” ways on the admired artist; anthropologists have taught us to accept the divergent ways of faraway cultures as equally right behavior, but we have learned less well to do the same for historically remote ones. My reading of the portrait is that it registers at the highest the physical habits of the people, wanting them alive; those habits of gesture and the like may themselves imply their moral state, but he was not after that. Danae may be a similar case.
Nineteenth-century admirers of Titian naturally were silent on such factors, praising the nudes almost solely for their visual forms, often with valuable insights. It has been helpful for feminist and other recent writers to add these other approaches, though some have been no less “reductive” than the predecessors they condemn. A concern with the client’s motives will not be illuminating if it never asks why a client should want the picture by Titian more than another, less erotic picture, but also more than some other equally sensual picture by a lesser artist, such as a routine bit of pornography. The brilliance of Titian’s painting evidently also concerned the client, and is also most often what has got observers to become involved with art history to begin with, so leaving it out of analyses is puzzling as well as sad. To be sure, it is harder to define than social ties. When the painting is “read” solely as a social illustration, we have art history without the art, a handicapped way of doing things that is of concern mainly because it is so widespread.
All concerned agree that Titian belongs to an astonishing small group of artists who define the peak of artistic achievement in their time. This group includes Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, each of whom also defines a peak for all of Western culture. Titian, however, does not; he is somehow less of a name than the rest. Partly this is because he lacks an interesting biography and vivid personality, things that have so captivated posterity about Leonardo and Michelangelo. Much is due to the absence from his work of huge projects that can be read as a single key to his art, giving an instant focus. The tradition of critical analysis is less strong for him, beginning with the lesser interest of Vasari and continuing today in the lack of anything like Clark on Leonardo or any of several lesser, but symptomatic, lives of Michelangelo. Without the travels and the monumental projects, Titian at home simply kept on with his painting, canvas after canvas. The idea of his greatness has been mainly in the keeping of the artists of later centuries, especially in the mainstream of the French tradition.
The closest to a grand series by Titian is perhaps the three Ovidian myths for the Duke of Ferrara, easily and soon scattered since they are portable canvases and much wanted. All this helps to explain the almost insuperable difficulty of a Titian exhibition, over and above those that apply to the other masters. A more or less ideal Titian show would have had to be like the Museum of Modern Art’s gigantic Picasso show, giving us the whole artist. There are 321 Titian paintings extant, according to Wethey’s convenient catalogue; what is the minimum to show him right, assuming the optimum selection? It is certainly well over the seventy that this show was able to garner (a number including those shown only in one of its two venues) plus eight drawings and two woodcuts. And of course the curators could have their pick. Another justification could easily be found for it in the reassemblages already cited, as of the Danaes or the Ferrara myths, but not even one of the latter could be had, precisely because they are the most “important” Titians. The one reassemblage offered here rejoins the ceiling painting of John Evangelist with the many tiny canvases making up its original framing decoration, but the small scale and large role of assistants in this set of ornamental heads and bodies did not add very much, even after all the good and careful work.
Another way to justify a show is to bring in many works of uncertain authorship, with the plausible hope of reaching a decision about them, on the model of the Metropolitan’s Caravaggio show. This exhibition did that hardly at all, and the catalogue tended to hide the few such cases, since each entry is prepared by a staff member of the owning institution, and so reads like an official communique. A small show could work in another way if it showed, as it were, Titian’s greatest hits, like an illustrated book, but as already noted that could hardly happen, and to the extent it did so was visible only in Venice. Of the seventy-four works shown in that earlier venue, an exceptionally high thirty-one were seen there only, though only a few even of these would be on most people’s top list. Only forty-three paintings traveled to Washington, thus excluding all the drawings and prints that could have offered a valuable variety and food for exploration. Six were added there. These look like what could be had for external reasons, but perhaps not much more than the whole exhibition does.
What results is low key; almost half of the exhibition consists either of single portraits, mostly in three-quarter length with plain backgrounds, or of Madonnas, mostly in pastoral landscapes. These were the successful artist’s bread-and-butter jobs—which he then did, one must quickly add, with beautiful solutions and entire command, each one gently different, but largely the same in their larger aspects; they did not push him far. It is like seeing a series of the smaller houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. Half a dozen more are either single saints or such standard church subjects as the Annunciation, intermediate between the simple accepted patterns of the portraits and the total engagement with creation we are likeliest to see in the secular works. It is not futile to have one’s attention concentrated on this minor Titian, which shows more than most painters’ major works, though a visit to see those permanently on view in the Prado or Vienna or their various locations in Venice would be likely to provide more. The exhibition benefits people who have a harder time getting to Madrid than to Washington (as it disadvantages those in the opposite position) —but if that should be considered a prime reason for doing it, the role is performed much better by the kind of show that directly addresses that point by lending one museum’s works in numbers for display elsewhere, as recently with the Fitzwilliam and the Courtauld in New York. But they do not generate as much hoopla.
I agree with Francis Haskell’s list of bad reasons for which exhibitions like this are held: funding that comes because it under-girds governmental or corporate claims to support culture, while promoting the careers and good living of curators, and—one might add—facilitates the publishing of essays like his and mine. It may, as in the case of the Titian catalogue, promote the assignment of scarce publishing funds to rather poor publications. This one shows disastrous copy editing ("for he who wishes,”“For he who enters"; a writer “inconceivably deduced,”where I think “incredibly”was meant; “the Marchesa from Este”for Isabella d’Este, who did not come from there) as well as incompetence with Italian. Pietro Aretino did not say of a portrait of a pope that it shows “how he is alive, how he is now and how he is true,”but something like how the portrait “is alive, is himself, is a true likeness.”All this reflects the hurry to a deadline that helps to explain why catalogues are not considered as full examples of art historical scholarship. (So, as a larger element, does the absence of peer review, replaced too often by job status as a basis for having entries published.) But I do not agree with Mr. Haskell’s most emphatic arguments for abolishing such exhibitions—for complex reasons that may be as much based on speculation as his, and go far afield. Rather I would draw from this one, in the imperfections of its origins and results, what it can teach and give in pleasure. It gives us comfortably the Titian of the usual procedure, the level out of which his peaks lift, something that may have been left un-articulated because no one could have set out to make that the distinction of an exhibition.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 5, on page 37
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com