The Sun Amidst Small Stars: Titian at the National Gallery

Diana and Callisto (1556-59), Titian

Diana and Callisto (1556-59), Titian

Titian was a master of 16th-century Venetian painting, and produced highly influential work both as a talented young painter, and as a famous, seasoned artist. During his varied career, he experimented with many different painting styles, and his use of colour in particular had a huge influence on artists of the Italian Renaissance and beyond. Today we look at a two exhibitions at the National Gallery London, showcasing Titian’s finest work, as both a young man and an aged master.

Fans of the Renaissance artist Titian will be particularly excited this Spring as the National Gallery launch a series of exhibitions on the Italian master, bolstered by the acquisition of the great masterpiece Diana and Callisto, probably Titian’s most famous painting.

Recognised by his contemporaries as ‘The Sun Amidst Small Stars’ (recalling the final line of Dante’s Paradiso), Titian was one of the most versatile of Italian painters, equally adept with portraits, landscape backgrounds, and mythological and religious subjects. His painting methods, particularly in the application and use of color, would exercise a profound influence not only on painters of the Italian Renaissance, but on future generations of Western art.

Starting this month, the National Gallery is celebrating the recent acquisition of Titian’s Diana and Callisto by hosting a dedicated exhibition of this influential work (Titian’s Diana and Callisto, 1 March – 1 July 2012) as well as another exhibition of a piece by the young – possibly even teenaged – Titian (The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012) .

Diana and Actaeon, (1556-9), Titian

Diana and Actaeon, (1556-9), Titian

Following the purchase of Diana and Callisto‘s companion painting Diana and Actaeon in 2009, this major acquisition ensures that these superlative works by Titian will remain together on public display. Painted simultaneously as a pair, and probably intended to hang facing each other, the two paintings have remained together since they left Titian’s studio.

Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon belong to a series of large-scale mythological works inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s  Metamorphoses. Titian painted them between 1556–9 for the Spanish king Philip II, the most powerful monarch in the world at the time. The artist referred to his lyrical compositions as ‘poesie’, the visual equivalents of poetry.

Diana and Callisto shows the moment when Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt, cruelly reveals the pregnancy of one of her nymphs, Callisto. Banished by Diana, Callisto was later transformed by her seducer, Jupiter, into the constellation of the Great Bear. Painted when Titian was nearly 70 years old, this is a work of unprecedented beauty and inventiveness. The artist surpassed himself in its rich colouring and compositional complexity. The soft sensuousness of female flesh, Titian’s special hallmark, proliferates to delight the erotic tastes of his young patron.

Diana and Callisto will be on display until July when, together with Diana and Actaeon it will be reunited with Titian’s third great late mythology, The Death of Actaeon, in the Summer exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 (which we will cover in more detail later this year).

The Flight into Egypt, Titian

The Flight into Egypt, Titian

In contrast to Diana and Callisto, painted during Titian’s final years, when he had already enjoyed widespread fame and the patronage of dukes and kings, the National Gallery is hosting another exhibition, this time showcasing Titian’s work as a young man. Titian’s First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt (4 April – 19 August 2012) will examine the talented young artist’s creation of an extraordinarily ambitious and innovative work, The Flight into Egypt, which is believed to be one of his earliest paintings.

The Flight into Egypt gave Titian a subject where he had the chance to display his precocious skills in depicting landscapes. The painting reveals an already bold brushwork and exhilarating use of colour – characteristics that would become signatures of his artistic style.

The artwork, which has been lent to the National Gallery by the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, will go on display after years of skilled restoration. This will be the first time the painting has been seen outside Russia since 1768, when Empress Catherine the Great purchased it in Venice. The exhibition will display Titian’s masterpiece alongside contemporary Venetian works – both from the National Gallery and loans from other British collections – to demonstrate how Titian adapted ideas from other artists’s work in order to create his sophisticated composition.

Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature

Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature

Flight into Egypt is vivid proof of Titian’s interest in the depiction of animals, plants and figures in the landscape. Accompanying the exhibition, the National Gallery have published Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature, a fully illustrated little book that investigates Titian’s unique and innovative approach to painting nature. Although Titian is best known for his portraits, mythological pictures and religious subjects, his first great achievement as a painter, schooled in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, was to refashion the portrayal of nature in his own distinctive style by studying the work of Albrecht Durer, whose naturalistic paintings of plants, animals and landscape – for which northern European artists were renowned – had caused a sensation in Venice in the first decade of the sixteenth century.

In Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature, Antonio Mazzotta presents this experience, together with Titian’s native landscape of Pievedi Cadore, as crucial influences in the artist’s early representation of nature. The author’s carefully chosen comparisons of paintings, prints, drawings and details of works by the young Titian, Durer and their contemporaries (including Sebastiano del Piombo and Giorgione) suggest that Titian was as innovative and as influential in his unique view of nature as he was in portraiture.

Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature is available now from Yale University Press.

More Titian art books from Yale

Renaissance art books from Yale

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