The Problematic Allure of Titian’s Poesie Paintings

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The Problematic Allure of Titian’s Poesie Paintings

BOSTON — For the whimsical writer on monographic exhibitions, it is difficult to resist describing the convening of the artworks as a family reunion. The simile not only captures the sense of sibling resemblance among paintings, but also conveys the somewhat uncanny sense of presence that amounts nearly to personhood of some artworks.  

This presence feels especially potent with Titian’s paintings for Philip II of Spain, reunited for the first time in 500 years, and now at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Titian: Women, Myth & Power. Combining the authority of the highly esteemed medium of oil painting, Titian’s stature as an artist, Philip II’s might as a monarch, the allure of the female nude, and the cultural cachet of Classical subject matter, the paintings vibrate with significance. The first impression upon entering the exhibition is that of intruding upon a grand colloquy of potentates. This is emphasized by the inclusion, at the head of the room, of portraits of their patron, Philip II of Spain, and his wife, Mary Tudor of England.

Titian’s work for Philip II began in 1550, when Philip commissioned a series of paintings based on Classical mythology. Collectively, the paintings are known as the Poesie for their relationship with poetry, though the subjects were apparently selected for their potential to depict exposed female flesh as much as their poetic drama. For the next two decades, Titian dispatched the paintings to Philip from his studio in Venice.

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), “Danaë” (1551–1553), oil on canvas, 73 5/8 x 80 1/2 inches. The Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London (© Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust)

Sleekly mounted in matching gilded frames, the paintings are organized chronologically, two to a wall. The opener is “Danaë,” in which the god Jupiter successfully woos a princess held captive in a tower by disguising himself as a shower of gold. It was a subject that Titian had already painted for a Venetian patron, who thought it sexier than the “Venus of Urbino.” For Philip, Titian nudged the subject even more toward the lewd, swapping out Cupid for an old woman, whose aged body highlights Danaë’s languorous beauty while her greed in collecting gold suggests prostitution. He also enlarged the painting vertically, inserting into the clouds the face of Jupiter and Philip’s own symbols, on the off chance that Philip missed the parallel between the King of the Gods and himself, soon to be King of Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, Naples, and Sicily, Duke of Milan, and Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. (This portion of the painting is now lost, though its composition is reflected in copies.)

Titian followed “Danaë” with “Venus and Adonis,” in which Venus attempts to restrain her lover, Adonis, a handsome young mortal, from going on a hunt that she knows will end in his death. Her limbs are pulled into a pinwheel of yearning by Adonis’s departing stride, accompanied by a tangle of dogs eager for the hunt. We view Venus from behind, an innovation on Titian’s part to which he called Philip’s attention in a letter sent with the canvas. This painting, he noted, complements the frontal view of the female body offered by “Danaë.” 

Titian continued to make connections among the paintings. Inversions and associations crisscross the gallery space: the tragic outcome of the story of Venus and Adonis, in which a goddess is unable to save her lover, contrasts with that of Danaë, in which a god and a mortal come together and produce offspring. Across the room, the child from this coupling, Perseus, rescues Andromeda from a sea monster. For the last in the series, Titian returns to Jupiter, on the prowl in the “Rape of Europa.” Now in the form of a bull, Jupiter has tricked Europa into riding him, and swims away with her.

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), “Venus and Adonis” (about 1553–1554), oil on canvas, 73 1/4 x 81 1/2 inches. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P000422)

That gives us two bed scenes and two ocean scenes. Between them are two river scenes, “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto.” These stand somewhat apart from the others. Rather than focusing on two main figures, as in the other paintings, these orchestrate numerous nudes in the landscape, and rather than pliant, pleading, or imperiled women, we see a goddess exerting terrifying power. In the first, the hunter Actaeon has stumbled across Diana and her nymphs, and in punishment for witnessing their nudity, she will transform him into a deer to be torn apart by his dogs. (They are not in the picture, but we can borrow them, mentally, from “Venus and Adonis.”) In the second, her nymphs strip the clothing from Callisto, revealing her to be pregnant. As with Actaeon, the punishment for transgression is transformation: Diana’s gesture will turn Callisto into a bear. 

Antonis Mor and Workshop, “Mary I, Queen of England” (1554), oil on oak panel, 44 1/8 x 32 11/16 inches. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (P21e22)

Joining in Titian’s game, the curator has hung these paintings opposite the portraits of Philip and Mary Tudor, calling attention to the parallels between Mary and Diana. Mary sits starkly vertical in the portrait by Anthonis Mor, refusing to succumb to so much as a backrest, brandishing a carnation that looks like it was engineered to transform into a deadly weapon. Across the room from her, Diana takes the goddess’s version of the same pose: nude, lithe, imperious. 

The paintings overall reveal two time-tested techniques of sexism: deriding female power as deranged, and defusing male predation as a natural result of virility. In contrast to Diana’s punishments, Jupiter’s transformations for sexual conquest offer themselves as just a bit of fun. It seems hardly coincidental that both images of Diana were painted during the four years of Philip and Mary’s marriage. (Mary died at 42, having failed to produce an heir who would prevent power from passing to her sister Elizabeth.)

Oh, but the paintings are beautiful. Titian was an early innovator of using canvas as a support. Rather than gessoing it into a facsimile of wooden panel, he kept the weave visible, facilitating meltingly soft edges and a convincing sense of the matte surface of skin. In his later years, he revolutionized the application of oil paint, using traditional glazes but also impastos, and often applying paint with large brushes or his fingers. This creates plush, enveloping images, especially visible in the later works like “Rape of Europa” and “Perseus and Andromeda.”

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), “Diana and Actaeon” (1556–1559), oil on canvas, 72 5/8 x 79 5/8 inches. The National Gallery, London and National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (NG6611/NG2839) (© The National Gallery, London)

And the paintings are affecting. To point to just one of Titian’s strategies, he expressively deploys cloth as an emotional and narrative intensifier. In “Venus and Adonis,” a drape lies down the length of Venus’s flank, tracing the path of her body like an appreciative hand. Starting with the Diana paintings, he activates the motif of a single narrow band of cloth, evoking medieval text banderoles. One tags along behind Actaeon, a spasming contrail that suggests his agonizing fate. Another, nearly transparent, seems to erupt from Callisto’s fingertips like a faint cry. Yet another loops around Perseus in his hectic tumble toward the sea monster in the boiling sea; and the last, the most lavishly expressive, swirls upward from the arms of Europa as Jupiter carries her off to sea. 

Equal to the pleasure and significance of seeing the paintings together is looking at the “Rape of Europa” at eye level. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will specifies that objects in her collection must remain where she placed them. For the most part, her sensibility is felicitous, but she hung “Rape of Europa” somewhat higher up than most visitors would like and by a large window, which means that it frequently suffers from glare. At close quarters, viewers can appreciate the nuances of color, like the peach highlights in Europa’s red drape and the crystalline blue of the sky, freshly revealed by its cleaning. You can also look Jupiter as Bull in the face. He’s handsome, to be sure, with tousled fur and a flower crown, but his eyes are perfused with red and glassy with lust.

Obtaining the “Rape of Europa” was a coup for Gardner. With the help of her art advisor, Bernard Berenson, she snatched it away from much bigger competitors in Gilded Age art collecting, such as Henry Clay Frick. Not only did she put it near the window, but she hung it above a large swatch of cloth left over from one of her ball gowns. It is an idiosyncratic hanging, and one that, intentionally or not, strips the painting’s subject matter of some of its force, amplifying Gardner’s conquest over that of Jupiter.

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576) and Workshop, “Prince Philip of Spain” (1549–1550), oil on canvas, 40 9/16 x 32 5/16 inches. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P000452)

The Gardner Museum now, similarly, hopes to take some of the venom from the bite of the paintings’ content. The one Black figure in the paintings justly has her own passage of wall text, not only addressing her presence but also the whitewashed African origins of both Andromeda (Ethiopia) and Europa (Egypt). The museum also commissioned a Barbara Kruger banner for the exterior of the building (forgettable, but you can remind yourself with a tote bag bearing the motif) and a video by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley (unforgettable, and you probably wouldn’t want a tote bag) exhibited on the first floor. Set in a courtyard of the Gardner, here imagined as a post-apocalyptic ruin, featuring a masked woman wearing a yarn merkin who spouts bawdy limericks referencing rivers of shit and blood, it is purposefully anhedonic.

Effort appreciated, but nothing fully fixes the situation. Both Titian and Philip were creatures of their time and position — Philip’s job was to believe his person capable of embodying the power of his office; Titian’s was supporting and ingratiating that belief. Titian’s paintings are masterpieces, with all the complications of the term, and are based on ancient stories whose brilliant poetry is only matched by their cruelty. Loving them is complicated.

Titian: Women, Myth & Power continues at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, Boston, Massachusetts) through January 2, 2022.

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