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How to Paint Like Titian

Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret

an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, September 18, 2008–January 4, 2009.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Julie Lavorgna, with text by Angus Trumble and Mark Aronson. Yale Center for British Art, 73 pp., n.p.
fenton_1-022609.jpg
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Michael D. Eisner
The first of Benjamin West’s two versions of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, 1796–1797, painted according to methods described in a fraudulent manuscript that purported to reveal the lost or secret techniques of Titian and other Venetian painters of the High Renaissance

1.

The affair of the Venetian Secret was renowned in the 1790s as a notorious and revealing swindle. It involved an obscure functionary of the royal household in London; the president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West; and several of the leading artists of the time. Thomas Provis, a sweeper, and his artistically inclined daughter managed to mesmerize West into believing that they had acquired a secret recipe or method that would enable the possessor to paint like Titian and his contemporaries. In return for imparting the secret, they hoped to secure their financial future.

But who should be allowed to possess this secret—the president alone, the members of the Academy, the country as a whole? There was bound to be a fight, and after the secret was imparted, there was bound to be disappointment. This sequence of events was the subject of the recent exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art.

British artists in the eighteenth century held Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and other Venetian masters in great reverence, and some thought that Venice had once possessed some kind of secret method of painting that had since been lost. Perhaps it had to do with the preparation of the canvas or panel, the laying of a “ground” over which to paint. Perhaps it had to do with the “vehicle”—that is to say the oil or other liquid with which the ground pigment was mixed. Or perhaps there was some other trick of the trade, closely guarded within the artists’ studios, now lost in time.

Benjamin West, the American painter who succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy in London, had, after leaving Pennsylvania when he was twenty-six, studied in Italy, both as a student of Anton Raphael Mengs and through copying the Old Masters there, between 1760 and his arrival in London in 1763. This may not seem a very long education, but it gave West an advantage over many a London artist who had not, for instance, spent time copying Titian’s Venus of Urbino in Florence, and who could not claim, as West claimed, to have “formed himself upon” Correggio’s Saint Jerome in Parma.

The list of masterpieces upon which the artists of this period might be said to have formed themselves is very far from obvious to us today, but it is impossible to understand the mentality of the late-eighteenth-century painter, or to appreciate why he might be vulnerable to a particular kind of fraud, without bearing in mind that Titian was a god for him. The work of Titian that such an artist was most likely to admire, the Saint Peter Martyr, no longer exists (it was lost in a fire in the nineteenth century). Another influential painting, still in the Louvre, was Titian’s Mistress, which was held by one artist to exceed “in beauty, simplicity, breadth and every other requisite any great portrait that I have seen.”1 Domenichino’s The Last Communion of Saint Jerome was another masterpiece that stopped visitors in their tracks when Napoleon exhibited it among his loot at the Louvre, along with that fundamental expression of the Renaissance ideal, Raphael’s Transfiguration.

When English travelers took the opportunity to visit Paris during the short-lived Peace of Amiens in 1802, and gaped at the works of art recently confiscated from Italy, this Domenichino was one of the paintings they were most likely to gape at. Charles James Fox, the Whig statesman, was not alone in preferring it “to all the other works,” remarking, “What is an Island to such a Collection?” But the Raphael Transfiguration showed another visitor how that painter had progressed, how “his mind expanded by degrees from Gothic puerility to the most judicious and manly excellence.”

Bolognese, Roman, and Venetian paintings held sway (the legends of Leonardo and Michelangelo were yet to achieve ascendancy), and among these the Venetians Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese exerted a particular allure. West thought that the Venetians had a secret which had been confined to their school: a secret, essentially, of coloring. The Carracci brothers of Bologna “had tried in vain to find it out,” after which Lodovico Carracci had suggested that they try another way to fame: they should pursue “greatness of design.” Correggio in Parma had known the secret, “which He practised with more delicacy than the Venetians.” The two Palmas in Venice—Palma il Vecchio and Palma il Giovane—“had it & with them it died,” for a curious reason (as West explained): the churches and other public spaces of Venice had been filled with paintings, so artists turned instead “to decorate fronts of Houses &c in Fresco & by neglecting the other process it was lost.”2

Another of these key paintings of a former era, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus (which in due course became number one in the catalog of the newly formed National Gallery in London), was painted after a design of Michelangelo’s, using the secret, which Sebastiano never “discovered”—that is, he never revealed it. This painting was then in a private collection in England, and West hoped that it might be hung in the Royal Academy for six months “for artists to consider it.”

We have to remember not only that the artists of this period had a different list of heroes from today. They could not easily study the paintings of the past, there being as yet no public picture gallery in London. And then, to make matters more complicated still, there is the question: What did Venetian works painted in the sixteenth or seventeenth century look like in the late eighteenth century? When the painter Joseph Farington, an assiduous diarist on whom we have to rely for most of our information about the Venetian Secret affair, told the aged and dying Horace Walpole that the “process” of the Venetian painters had been rediscovered, the great connoisseur replied:

I know not what the Venetian painters were from what I saw at Venice. The celebrated pictures appeared to me all black, I should never have known the famous picture of St. Peter Martyr but from the Print.

And Walpole’s later editor, Robert Berry, told Farington that

in 1791 He was at Venice, and saw some pictures of Tintoretto, which had been affected by the Sea Air, and were taken down to be cleaned &c.—The general appearance was blackish,—but the parts which had been covered by a frame were very brilliant.

Allowing for some exaggeration in such stories, we can still accept that British artists, however much they admired the Venetians, could not very easily study their works, and sometimes, when they did get to study them, were frustrated by what they saw. They admired the Venetians for their coloring, but they were aware that what they were seeing had at least been modified by time. James Northcote, the greatest conversationalist of his day, whose words were admiringly recorded both by William Hazlitt and by another painter, James Ward, told Ward that Rubens’s flesh “was painted on a fine principle that was derived from his study of Titian’s works, which he saw when they were fresh, and it is in the reflected lights and adjuncts where he brings out his gorgeous colour” (my italics).

Northcote—judicious, catty, much imitated for his Devonshire accent, revered by Hazlitt as a living link to the age of Johnson and Reynolds—spoke of Titian with tears in his eyes, but he also had a sense of his limitations (as the same passage shows):

Now, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne—which is in the possession of Hamlet, the jeweller—is not one of that great master’s judicious pictures, for the general effect is not very good, but very weak. But the great glory of it is its colouring; the landscape part is inexpressibly exquisite, indeed all Titian’s landscapes are so. His feeling for history was not of the highest order, but he was the finest portrait and landscape painter in the world…. [The landscape] in the picture I have just mentioned is a representation of the Spanish climate, and is therefore more brilliant than we ever see in our misty atmosphere. The work may be called a wanton display of executive power, as far beyond common nature as the feats of a rope-dancer beyond walking; we may be sure a rope-dancer can walk, therefore a painter who can do work like this, is safe from all inferior attempts. Oh! Titian’s colouring was wonderful; to such a degree, indeed, that no man can tell how it was done. The old masters painted on a system—nobody can doubt that—but, as Sir Joshua used to say, “the recipe is now lost.”3

2.

Joseph Farington, the chief source for the story of the Venetian secret, is also one of the main muck-stirrers in the affair. He was a landscape painter, not an artist of any great distinction but rather an addicted plotter and power broker, whose diary has come down to us in sixteen volumes, plus a thousand pages of index. It is riveting in flashes, ghastly in its great stretches of tedium. It provides sketches of the seating arrangements at practically every dinner he attended. It is full of hints and undercurrents, gossip about every election of every academician, both to the Academy itself and to its key posts, not one of which Farington ever held or even stood for. He was referred to by one (admittedly cantankerous) fellow artist as “Warwick, the King Maker”; elsewhere as “Dictator of the Royal Academy.” Here is Northcote again talking to Ward:

How Farington used to rule the Academy! He was the great man to be looked up to on all occasions; all applicants must gain their point through him. But he was no painter; he cared nothing at all about pictures; his great passion was the love of power—he loved to rule. He did it, of course, with considerable dignity; but he had an untamable spirit, which, I suppose, was due to the fact that he had lost the game as a painter, and that it was too late to mend the matter. Oh! it’s a dreadful thing to find your opportunity gone, and to find no time to retrieve it!

When the great Romantic outsiders of the day—people like William Blake, James Barry, and Benjamin Robert Haydon—felt a loathing for the Academy, the sort of thing they loathed was the sort of thing that Farington stood for. Northcote (no slouch when it came to malice) called the Academy “a nest of vermin.”

I am now sorry that I ever belonged to it at all, and I admire Romney’s conduct in having kept himself aloof from it. One reason why I dislike the Academy is because of that nasty feeling which the French call esprit de corps ; I respect and like many of the members as individuals, but I dislike them as a body, for collectively they have an insolence about them that is insufferable to me; and, what is still worse, those members who have the least pretensions have always the most of this impudence.

  1. 1

    Titian’s Mistress, later known under the title Lady at Her Toilet, had come to the French royal collection from England; it had belonged to Charles I.

  2. 2

    This implies that the secret was lost on Palma il Giovane’s death in 1626 (or 1628?).

  3. 3

    Conversations of James Northcote R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists, edited by Ernest Fletcher (London: Methuen, 1901), p. 65.

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