Titian and the Rebirth of Tragedy

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National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh/National Gallery, London
Titian: Diana and Actaeon, 1556–1559

This autumn two of Titian’s greatest pictures, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, have come to America for the first time, as part of the exhibition “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting,” a selection of works from the National Gallery of Scotland, now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.1 The two paintings, made between 1556 and 1559 for King Philip II of Spain, are among the most celebrated works in the history of European art. They have influenced generations of artists, including such figures as Velázquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and they still provoke excited attention and fervent praise. The painter Lucian Freud, for example, recently called them “the most beautiful pictures in the world.”

The ravishing application of paint, the luscious brushwork, and the startling compositions of the two pictures impress all who behold them. But just as fundamental to the pictures’ power is Titian’s poignant exploration of the tragic themes of the myths he represents. Rarely before had any artist looked with such unblinking concentration, and such deep empathy, at the vulnerability and the injustice that are an inescapable part of mortal existence.

Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are two from a suite of six mythological paintings that Titian executed for Philip II between about 1551 and 1562. The other canvases in the series, which Titian called poesie (Italian for poems or poetry), are Danaë (the version now in the Prado), Venus and Adonis (Prado), Perseus and Andromeda, (Wallace Collection, London), and The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). Titian also planned images of Medea and Jason and of the death of Actaeon for the group. The latter is likely to be the painting of this subject in the National Gallery, London; he seems never to have made the other picture.

All the poesie paintings are approximately six by seven feet, with the exception of the first work in the series, Danaë, which is somewhat smaller than the others. It is clear from the letters between Titian and Philip II that the painter imagined the poesie hanging together in one room, although at the time he was making the pictures a specific setting had not been selected for them. Philip II traveled regularly between his residences, as was the custom with Hapsburg royalty, and the paintings did not have a permanent home before 1623, when they were installed in the Alácazar palace in Madrid.

Given by Philip V to the French ambassador in 1704, the two Diana paintings migrated from Madrid to Paris, where they formed part of the legendary Orléans collection at the Palais-Royal until the French Revolution. In 1798 they were purchased by the Duke of Bridgewater and put on view in London, soon after passing by inheritance to the future Duke of Sutherland.2 They stayed in London until the outbreak of World War II, when they were sent to …

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  1. 1

    The exhibition is on view at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 17, 2010–January 2, 2011; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, February 5–May 1, 2011; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 21–August 14, 2011. This essay is drawn in part from the catalog Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, edited by Edgar Peters Bowron (Yale University Press, 2010). 

  2. 2

    The fullest account of the provenance of the paintings is by Nicholas Penny, National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Volume II, Venice 1540–1600 (London: National Gallery/Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 461–470. In 1704 Philip V of Spain gave both Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto to the French ambassador, the Duc de Gramont, who in turn gave the pictures to the French regent, the Duc d’Orléans, one of the most important collectors in the eighteenth century. They remained with the rest of the Orléans collection at the Palais Royal in Paris until 1792 when the collection of French and Italian paintings was sold to the Viscount Walckiers of Brussels, who soon after sold this collection to François-Louis-Joseph de Laborde-Méréville.

    Laborde-Méréville brought the pictures to London, where he mortgaged them to the English banker Joseph Harman. Under the terms of the loan, the ownership of the paintings passed to Harman in 1798 when Laborde-Méréville was unable to repay the loan. Harman sold them the same year to a consortium of three British collectors made up of the Duke of Bridgewater, his nephew the Earl of Gower, and Gower’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Carlisle.

    Upon Bridgewater’s death in 1803, his share of the pictures passed to his nephew Lord Gower’s second son, who later became the Earl of Ellesmere. The paintings, together with Lord Gower’s own portion of the Orléans collection, could be seen at Cleveland House in London beginning in 1806. The paintings remained in this house (spectacularly rebuilt as Bridgewater House) until the outbreak of World War II when they were moved to Mertoun House in the Scottish Borders for protection. This turned out to be wise, as Bridgewater House was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz. Lord Gower had been made the first Duke of Sutherland in 1833. Beginning in 1945, the 6th Duke of Sutherland lent the principal masterpieces of the collection, including the Diana paintings and other outstanding works by Titian, Velázquez, and Poussin, to the National Gallery of Scotland.