The 16th century painter is in the news because his recently restored “Danaë and Venus” is now on view at the Prado in Madrid. And the subject of the painting is a reminder that mythology was a frequent theme in Titan’s painting. “The Rape of Europa” and “Venus and Adonis” come to mind.
But mythology isn’t all Titian should be known for and I’m not talking about the color called Titian red that has been his legacy.
He developed an original and more expressive way of painting than his contemporaries. And given that historians call him the Monet of his day, you can guess what his new idea was. He sought to picture light and texture, which was a typical effort of the Impressionists two centuries into his future. You can see it in his later works like “Pieta.”
This pre-modern technique didn’t show up in “Danae and Venus,” which he painted when he was 23 years younger than when he painted “Pieta.” Which means that for all his innovations with color and style, Titian didn’t always paint so freely. Earlier work like “Danaë and Venus” shows evenly brushed-on paint that is easy to read, both up close and far away. It was his later works that took on the before-its-time Impressionist look.
Expressionism also marks his work ahead of schedule by three centuries. The red in Rape of Europa heightens the drama of the legendary story of Roman god Jupiter disguised as a bull for the purpose of rape. The female’s red robe flies up into the wind like blood spurting as companions across the way shriek helplessly.
Another Titian innovation was his technique for applying color. This included painting a first coat, often on a coarse surface, and layering it several times with bright pigments. The method is unmistakable in the energetic brushwork of his Venus and Adonis.” Commenting on this technique, Titian’s pupil Palma Giovani said that his teacher’s paintings looked like he used his fingers more than his brush.
But it was historian Giorgio Vasari’s description of Titian’s technique that can be said of all the Monets to come:
“These last works are executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of color, with the result that they cannot be viewed from nearby, but appear perfect at a distance.“
Vasari blamed Titian’s Impressionist-like technique for the “clumsy pictures” made by his imitators. He said you have to be a Titian to paint like him. And while his work can look as if made without much effort, on closer inspection you can see that he retouched his pictures many times.
Speaking for himself, Titian said, “Not everyone is fit to be a painter, and many deceive themselves… They who are compelled to paint by force, without being in the necessary mood, can produce only ungainly works, because this profession requires an unruffled temper.”
Tell that to all the Gauguins of the world.
Titian was so respected that even royalty bowed to him. Once, when he dropped his brush while painting Emperor Charles V, the emperor stooped to pick it up, saying, “Titian is worthy of being served by Caesar.”
It’s hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth picking up a brush of Lucien Freud’s when he was painting her portrait. But that may be a gender or generational thing.