“The classicism of Venice did not find its fundamental expressive force in the use of line to create its images, but in the development of tonal painting, creating noble forms of a solemn plasticity to attain, with Titian, an ideal of ample, monumental beauty, anchored firmly in earthly reality.” The Uffizi: A Guide to the Gallery: Edizione Storti
Titian is one of the most important figures in the history of Western art. Titian was born in the town of Cadore, in Northern Italy. He came from a non-artisan family of lawyers and notaries, who taught him the value of good money management. At the age of nine, Titian moved to Venice where his Uncle Antonio encouraged his talent. He worked first in mosaics with Zuccato, then in the studios of Gentile, Bellini, and Giorgione who left a lasting impression upon him.
Titian’s first great commission and rise to fame was for three frescos in 1511 at Scuola del Santo Padua. When he returned to Venice, Giorgione had died. When Bellini died in 1516, Titian became official painter to the Republic. Titian began to win independent commissions, and he gradually freed himself from the stylistic domination of Giorgione. A style that was a synthesis between Titian’s worldliness and Giorgione’s poetry which can be seen in such works as Sacred and Profane Love 1514 and Venus of Urbino 1538.
In 1513, Titian opened his own workshop. A few years later Titian was commissioned to paint a new work for the high altar in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, The Assumption of the Virgin (Assunta, 1516-1518). This work become a milestone in the history of Venetian High Renaissance and made Titian the most celebrated painter in Venice. In later paintings of this decade, Titian progressively enriched Giorgione’s idyllic style. Bodies and fabrics took on an increasingly sensuous density and splendor, landscape settings became more resonant, and colours became intense and harmonious.
Works such as The Worship of Venus and Bacchanal of the Andrians, transformed the Giorgionesque Arcadian idyll into Dionysiac celebrations. Titian referred to these pictures as poesie, and they are indeed highly poetic visions of distant worlds, quite different from the sensual realities of his earlier mythological paintings. These works became the most famous and influential paintings of the Renaissance. They are based on Roman sculpture and the works of Michelangelo. The dynamic vibrancy of these works is paralleled in Titian’s religious paintings of the same period. First among these is The Madonna of the House of Pesaro (1519-26). Titian effected a crucial change in Renaissance sacre conversazioni (paintings of the Virgin enthroned among saints) by placing the Virgin, traditionally at the composition’s center, halfway up its right side, and by painting behind her in diagonal recession two giant columns that soar out of the picture’s space.
This new scheme was widely adopted by later artists. With its evocation of movement and infinity, it opened the way to the Baroque style. These paintings, both secular and religious, give evidence of Titian’s awareness of contemporary High Renaissance achievements in Rome and Florence. Known to him only through prints and drawings, they served as a stimulus and an aid in creating a Venetian counterpart to the High Renaissance, A unique style equally complex, monumental, and dynamic. One which made full use of the traditional Venetian resources of colour, free brushwork, and atmospheric tone.
Titian’s paintings of the 1530s are marked by relative quiet, pictorial subtlety, and refinement. In 1533, Titian was summoned to the court of Charles V, where he was appointed court painter and made a Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur, an unprecedented honor for a painter. This inaugurated a brilliant period in Titian’s creative career during which he produced splendid portraits as well as religious and mythological themes totally original in conception and vivid with movement. The strong, simple colours used indicate the artist’s evident pleasure in the silhouetting of dark forms against a light background. This technique reappears throughout the work of this period.
About 1530, the year in which his wife died, a change in Titian’s manner becomes apparent. The vivacity of former years gives way to a more restrained and meditative art. He began to use related rather than contrasting colors in juxtaposition. Yellows, and pale shades rather than the strong blues and reds which shouldered each other through his previous work. In composition, he became less adventurous and used schemes which, compared with some of his earlier works, appear almost archaic, and made use of the relief-like frieze composition dear to the quattrocento. During the 1530s, Titian’s fame spread throughout Europe and at the same time Italian princes increasingly sought his works.
Early in the 1540s Titian came under the influence of Mannerism and in 1545-6 at the Pope’s behest he made his first and only journey to Rome and met Michelangelo. He was deeply impressed by Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and by the classical remains of antiquity. His own paintings during this visit aroused much interest, his Danaë was praised for its handling and colour and (according to Vasari) criticized for its inexact drawing by Michelangelo. In 1548, the emperor summoned Titian to Augsburg where he was commissioned for portraits and mythological subjects. Because of this royal connection, he obtained a multitude of portrait commissions.
Titian’s most important innovations in the years from 1530 to 1550 were made in portraiture. As early as 1516, he began working at the courts of Ferrara, Bologna, and Mantua. During a sixty-year career, Titian produced about one hundred portraits, making it possible to follow both the stylistic and human progress of the artist. Titian’s career also tracked the course of Italian and European history in the sixteenth century, exemplified through the images of the protagonists of political, religious and cultural power. This aspect – that of tracking Titian’s portraiture as a historical reportage of the century – has always fascinated critics, for as Vasari himself stated, “there was almost no famous lord, nor prince, nor great woman, who was not painted by Titian.”
Titian’s early portraits became compellingly beautiful images of idealized masculinity and femininity. In the 1520s and ‘30s, however, they changed. Aristocratic impersonality and restrained opulence, became the dominant tone. The neutral atmospheric backgrounds of the earlier portraits might be replaced by cannily disposed elements, such as a column, a curtain, or a view into landscape. These elements, and the patterns, in which Titian arranged them, remained staples of formal portraiture into the 20th century.
Behind his extraordinary gift as historian lies Titian’s sublime ability to penetrate to the real character of his models, which was perhaps his greatest gift.
The huge success of Titian as a portrait painter in the high society of his time can be explained largely by his capacity to divine unerringly and represent vividly the “Ideal persona” of his sitters, without, however, distorting either the physical or the psychological likeness of the personage. On no occasion did Titian’s portraits fail in verisimilitude, even when pitilessly testifying to a reality not just physical and psychological but also spiritual and ideal. Titian had no illusions about his own status, he was perfectly aware of his position as an outsider. Titian thought of himself as a skillful artisan, and a pragmatic bourgeois. Yet it was exactly this sense of being an outsider, in the jealously guarded arena of family affections, economic interests and diversity of habits and cultural interests, that allowed Titian to observe his sitters with detached curiosity and total objectivity.
In Titian’s late period forms gradually lose their solidity, partially dissolving into hazy paint textures, and vibrant brushstrokes. Colour becomes more intense, so that a universe seems to be on the verge of disintegrating into flame, with bronzy tonality and phosphorescent textures. The turbulence of the brushwork, (hardly matched again until 20th-century painting), almost submerges the forms entirely. These late mythological paintings, stand among the most formidable statements ever made of the irresistible, elemental powers of nature. These works are paralleled by a sequence of impassioned religious paintings in which the same progressive dissolution of form into color and light takes place. Often nocturnal in setting, Titian uses his dematerializing style to convey a state of being that transcends the physical. This late style, an astounding phenomenon in the context of Renaissance art, had its final manifestation in the Pietà intended for Titian’s own tomb chapel.
During the last twenty years of his life Titian’s personal oeuvre, as opposed to those which assistants produced under his supervision, showed an increasing looseness in the handling of the paint and a sensitive merging of colors which makes them more and more immaterial. To achieve this he began to paint with his fingers as well as a brush. Titian began to value the exploration of the colour above all other aspects of art. His style and technique were evolving from the more precise contours such as modeling and finish of the early portraits to a much bolder, freer style with more highly charged brushwork. He handled the paint increasingly broadly, creating a mosaic like effect, with patches of colour.
Titian’s influence on later artists has been profound: he was supreme in every branch of painting and revolutionized the oil technique with his free and expressive brushwork. Vasari wrote of this aspect of his late works, “they are executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of color, with the result that they cannot be viewed from near by, but appear perfect at a distance. The method he used is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, for it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art, but it conceals the labor that has gone into them.”
Titian remained active until he died in Venice in 1576. His work, which permanently affected the course of European painting, provided an alternative, of equal power and attractiveness, to the linear and sculptural Florentine tradition championed by Michelangelo and Raphael. This alternative, eagerly taken up by Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, Eugène Delacroix, Francisco Goya, and the Impressionists, is still vital today. In its own right, moreover, Titian’s work often attains the very highest reach of human achievement in the visual arts.
Biography by Pierre