Published: October 19, 2010
Five hundred years and a wildly circuitous route have brought a group of extraordinary masterworks from the Italian Renaissance to US shores for the first time. The exhibit, “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland,” is a compact display of just 25 images, including just 13 paintings and 12 drawings.
But such pictures they are! The grand masterworks by the indisputable giants of the Venetian Renaissance: Titian, Lotto, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese, to name but a few, are currently on view at the High Museum through January 2.
The exhibition comprises works of the major Venetian artists spanning much of the Sixteenth Century, beginning around 1504‱506 and lasting into the 1580s. While these paintings and drawings are the choicest of the choice, their provenance is compelling. Four paintings by Titian and one drawing attributed to him are included in the exhibition.
The paintings are spectacular and in fine condition, despite 500 years of moving around Europe faster than their owners could marry their cousins. Centuries of marriage, wars, political alliances made and broken, debt and other vicissitudes propelled the paintings back and forth across Europe. They are large works, and that they survived is a testament to their brilliance.
The artist Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), considered the master of the Sixteenth Century Venetian painters, began to study with Gentile and Giovanni Bellini while still a boy. He later painted with and drew technique from Giorgione, who also studied under Bellini. On Bellini’s death in 1516, Titian, already much in demand, was appointed painter to the Venetian Republic.
One of his patrons, the most important, was King Phillip II, the most powerful ruler of the time. He was king of Spain, Portugal, Naples, Sicily, England and Ireland, the latter two countries through his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots, one of his four wives. The king commissioned a cycle of seven mythological paintings, which Titian called “poesie.” Drawn from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the paintings were conceived as elevations of humans and human passions over the gods whose conquests and desires were regarded as of lesser import. Only six pictures made their way to Spain as “The Death of Actaeon” was found uncompleted in Titian’s studio after his death. “Diana and Actaeon,” “Diana and Callisto,” “Danae,” “Venus and Adonis” “Perseus and Andromeda” and the “Rape of Europe” all entered the king’s collection.
The paintings “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto” were designed as pendants; a stream flows between them. They were delivered to the king late in 1559, probably at Toledo, and since that time they have not been separated. They were moved to Madrid when the court moved there in 1561 and descended in the family until 1704, when Phillip V, less enthralled with art than most monarchs, gave them to the French ambassador le duc de Gramont.
Several years later, they entered the 500-piece collection of Duc d’Orléans at the Palais Royal in Paris, where they remained until the French Revolution. The Orleans collection, gathered mostly between 1700 and 1723, was removed from the Palais Royal for safekeeping, and 70 some paintings in the collection were sent to England.
In London, the collection was purchased by a consortium of three †Francis Egerton, Third Duke of Bridgewater, and his nephew and heir, Lord Gower (George Granville Leveson-Gower), later the Second Marquess of Stafford and eventually the First Duke of Sutherland, and the latter’s brother-in-law, Frederick, Fifth Earl of Carlisle. The three offered the pictures for sale in 1798, but each retained some of the paintings.
The Duke of Bridgewater chose Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto.” On Bridgewater’s death, the pictures passed to his nephew, the Duke of Sutherland, and thence to his son the Earl of Ellesmere, but the Bridgewater collection remained on view at Cleveland House in London until 1939 when World War II broke out and most of it was moved to Ellesmere’s house in the Scottish Borders for safekeeping. It was a fortuitous event, since Cleveland House was bombed during the Blitz. The pictures were placed on long-term loan at the National Galleries of Scotland in 1945 where they remain.
The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) mounted a campaign in partnership with the National Gallery, London, that resulted in last year’s purchase of “Diana and Actaeon” for 50 million pounds. The picture is on view alternately at each museum, rotating every five years.
A similar campaign is underway to acquire “Diana and Callisto” for the same amount. The NGS has also purchased other works from the Bridgewater Loan, which will end in 2030. They include Lorenzo Lotto’s “Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome, Peter, Francis and an Unidentified Female Saint” and Tintoretto’s “Christ Carried to the Tomb,” which are also on view in the High Museum.
The Titian exhibition is the result of a partnership between the NGS and the High Museum. It is the first of four such collaborations of John Leighton, director-general, and Aidan Westoe-Lewis of the National Galleries of Scotland, and David Brenneman, director of collections and exhibitions at the High Museum, to showcase Scotland’s art collection and museums in North America.
The group indicated hopes “to attract attention to the world-class quality of its holdings and to broaden its international base of support.” The National Galleries also hope to help raise awareness in the United States of the importance of Scotland as a center for the visual arts. Brenneman, in a discussion of the paintings on view, which he had witnessed being packed up in Edinburgh for their transatlantic voyage, added, “They deserve to be better known.”
Two other Titian paintings from the same series, “Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and an Unidentified Male Saint” and the circa 1820 “Venus Rising from the Sea,” are also on view. The Virgin and Child, originally believed to have been executed by Palma Vecchio, was known to have been owned by the Amsterdam collector Alfonso Lopez, who died in 1641, at which time it went to collector and banker Everhard Jabach, who lived variously in Belgium, Germany and France. It was acquired later by the Prince de Condé, and by 1723 had passed to Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, and descended in the Orleans collection until Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Fifth Duc D’Orleans, sold it in 1792.
The buyer, Viscount Edouard Walckiers, a Belgian banker who lived in Paris, in turn sold the painting to his cousin François-Louis-Joseph de Laborde de Méréville, who took it to London in 1793 and consigned the picture to Jeremiah Harman in 1798. It was later sold to dealer Michael Bryan, who sold it to the consortium of Francis Egerton, Third Duke of Bridgewater, his nephew and heir Lord Gower and the Earl of Carlisle, thus entering the Bridgewater Collection. Not until the Twentieth Century was it affirmed that the artist was not Vecchio as previously thought, but Titian.
“Venus Anadyomene,” Titian’s circa 1520 masterpiece, was acquired by NGS from the trustees of the Seventh Duke of Sutherland, partially in lieu of death duties. The picture was once owned by Christina of Sweden, whose collection was formed from war booty in the Seventeenth Century. From there it passed into the Orleans Collection.
Other paintings on view include a masterwork by Tintoretto, born Jacopo Comin, son of a dyer in Venice †hence his name. At a young age he was sent to study with Titian, a course that resulted in his dismissal after ten days, many sources suggest, due to Titian’s jealousy of the boy’s talent. Tintoretto’s “Christ Carried to the Tomb” was created as an altar piece for the Dal Basso family chapel in the church of San Francesco della Vigna. Its original arched top was cut at one point, leaving a pair of angelic feet hanging from the top.
Paris Bordon arrived in Venice as a young man and studied with Titian but, like Tintoretto and other young artists in Titian’s studio, his considerable talent may have elicited the master’s hostility. Bordon’s work combines the rich color of Venetian painters with the consciously ornate compositions of mannerist artists in paintings that are religious or erotic in nature.
Verona-born Paolo Veronese (Caliari) Veronese was the leading painter in Venice after Titian, celebrated for his large decorative works, rich in color and theatrical in character. Many of his frescoes and canvases are still in the churches, palaces and villas for which they were commissioned in Venice and the Veneto, the countryside on the mainland. His crowded, detailed compositions are carefully orchestrated to ensure their dramatic impact. They also demonstrate his outstanding skills, especially in complex foreshortening.
The exhibit will travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The High Museum is at 1280 Peachtree Street, NE. For information, www.high.org or 404-733-4400.
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