Titian and the Rebirth of Tragedy

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

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