Posts Tagged ‘titian’

“Titian” by Sheila Hale

We are still, I think, wedded to an image of the great artist as someone who is single-minded, who is not prepared to compromise, who, with mind focused on visions beyond the merely worldly, is prepared to suffer for his art. He is a Michelangelo chiselling the rippling muscles and veins of Moses in a sort of divine fury; he is Beethoven struggling with the demons of fugual counterpoint; and so on, and so forth. We have trouble with those artists – especially if they are artists whose works are indisputably great – who are of a more down-to-earth and worldly nature; who are, indeed, businessmen. Shakespeare was probably one such. And Titian certainly was. His art studio was a successful business venture in that most commercial of cities, Venice, and, while he certainly created some very great works of art – some of the very greatest, indeed – he often seemed quite content to let works pass out of his studio that weren’t always up to the highest standards.

Take, for instance, his group portrait of the male members of the Vendramin family, now hanging in the National Gallery, London. It is a vast and imposing canvas: Titian had been working on it on and off for a few years, and he must have known that he was creating a masterpiece. And yet, he seemed perfectly happy to allow a studio assistant to paint three boys in the bottom left corner in such a way as to make nonsense of the painting’s spatial unity. Why would he allow this? Presumably, the request to paint in the boys was received late, and the customer had to be satisfied. But given that Titian had failed to meet his deadline anyway (and not for the first time either, nor the last), the obvious solution would have been to expand the canvas to the left to create a suitable space for the boys. But what we have instead is a clumsy blot on what is otherwise a breathtaking masterpiece. Somehow, one cannot imagine an artist of Michelangelo’s temperament allowing something like that.

The comparison with Michelangelo is bound to come up, firstly because Michelangelo and Titian were the two leading figures of the 16th century Italian High Renaissance (Raphael was of the same generation, but he died when still in his thirties, leaving the field open, as it were, to the other two; and Leonardo was a generation older); and secondly because they had such sharply contrasting artistic styles, and aims, and temperaments. Titian had seen Michelangelo’s work, and, while no direct quotes exist on the matter, it is clear he was deeply impressed; indeed, as Sheila Hale points out, the pose of the woman in the early Miracle of the Jealous Husband (in the Scuola del Santo in Padua) is the exact mirror image of the pose of Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit in the Sistine Chapel. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence.

Michelangelo, on his part, had seen Titian’s portrait of Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara, and, according to Vasari, looked at it in “stupefaction”. The only recorded meeting between the two was in 1545, when Titian was passing through Rome. According to Vasari, Michelangelo saw and expressed admiration for Titian’s painting of Danaë, but, on leaving, muttered that it was a shame that Venetians don’t learn how to draw. This story has now become famous, but it’s hard to discern how accurate it is: Vasari, after all, had his own biases on the matter. But this does lay out, albeit in crude terms, the very different aims of the Florentine and the Venetian schools, and, in particular, of Michelangelo and of Titian, the leading representatives of these two schools. Put crudely, the Florentines were interested in draughtsmanship, in accuracy of line, in the creation of space according to the law of perspective, in the sculptural solidity of figures and objects situated within that space; while the Venetians, on the other hand, were interested in light, in shadings, in textures, and, above all, in colour.

The two sets of interests are not mutually exclusive, of course. Sheila Hale insists that, no matter what Michelangelo may or may not have said, Titian was indeed a very fine draughtsman: there are too many examples in his work of very fine draughtsmanship to think otherwise. Take, for instance, that superbly drawn figure of Actaeon at the left of the painting of Actaeon and Diana (now jointly owned by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the National Gallery, London). Here, Actaeon, out hunting, chances upon the private woodland bower of Diana, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and sees what he, a mere mortal, shouldn’t. We see him moving away a hanging drapery as if it were a curtain on a stage, screening a tableau vivant behind. And the draughtsmanship here is quite exquisite.

“Diana and Actaeon”, courtesy National Gllery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and National Gallery, London

And yet, what are we to make of the very strange figure of Diana in the same painting? Her head appears too small. We appear simultaneously to be seeing her side profile and her back – which is anatomically impossible. Is his not indeed poor draughtsmanship? This had long troubled me: how could the artist who had created the rest of this miraculous painting with such breathtaking skill mess up so badly at this point? But, Sheila Hale tells us:

Titian took immense trouble with the figure of Diana, first painting her realistically from the side, and only at the end deciding on the anatomically impossible pose – a deliberate solecism that was unprecedented in European painting – that shows the breast in profile as well as the whole of her back. Her averted head, too small for her body, gives a snake-like venom to her pose.

In short, it wasn’t that he couldn’t: he didn’t. The distortions are deliberate. And it is for us to determine why Titian chose to distort in this manner.

I personally think it is because Titian wants us to see Diana as Actaeon sees her. He doesn’t see much of her head, as Diana very quickly hides it. Diana also turns away from him. So Actaeon, in the brief moment that he sees her, has a fleeting vision of her side profile, and of her back. It is this momentary view, startled and confused, that Titian chose to depict. As for showing both the side profile and the back at the same time, modern viewers, used to cubism, should have no problem with that: it’s the fact that we are seeing this in a sixteenth century Renaissance painting that, I think, throws us. (At least, that, I think, is what threw me.) There is much in Titian’s artistic vision, or, rather, in his artistic visions, that can still throw us.

But Titian was, nonetheless, a businessman, and a very successful one too. He was also a man widely respected and admired as an artist: no starving in the garret for him. His art was in demand by princes, by cardinals, by the wealthiest of families, and even by Emperor Charles V himself. (And, after Charles’ death, by his son, Philip II, who was something of a connoisseur.) The famous anecdote about Emperor Charles V picking up a paintbrush for him that he had accidentally dropped is, most likely, apocryphal, but the very existence of such an anecdote reveals the extent to which he was esteemed by even the most mighty and the most powerful. However, although we know much of the history of the times – political social, cultural – there doesn’t really seem to be much about Titian the man. What letters remain by Titian are mainly business letters. (Titian, like most artists, was apprenticed to a studio at an early age, and was not the most well lettered of people: he would often ask his friend, the flamboyant and larger-than-life figure Pietro Aretino, to draft formal letters he sometimes had to send to princes and clerics). We know nothing about what Titian thought on politics, on religion, on social matters, or even on art. Indeed, we find more biographical details in Hale’s book of Titian’s friend Pietro Aretino than we do of Titian himself: Aretino’s life is far better recorded. We may infer from all this that Titian, despite his social stature, and despite his closeness with some of the most powerful men of his time (including the Holy Roman Emperor himself), kept, by and large, a low profile. However, his close and long-lasting friendship with a man as erudite and intellectual as Aretino does suggest that Titian’s was not a dull personality; and his closeness with the highest and the mightiest indicates a man possessed of tact and of courtly manners. Further, the success not merely of his studio, but also of his interventions in the family business, suggest a man who was commercially shrewd. And that’s about as much as we know of his personality.

We know also of his repeated attempts to find an ecclesiastical livelihood for his elder son Pomponio, and also of Pomponio’s reluctance to lead such a life; we know also of the eventual estrangement between father and son. But beyond this, there isn’t really much to tell.

This means that Hale has to focus not so much on the details of Titian’s life, but more on the times – on the various wars and political upheavals, on the social and cultural aspects, on the various religious disputes, and so on. These were momentous times. Of course, any period in history will have its fair share of wars and conflicts, and of various political manoeuvrings, but the sixteenth century saw also the beginnings of Protestantism. In 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed the text of his “95 Theses” to the castle church door in Wittenberg. It was not as dramatic an act as it might now seem: nailing theological theses to the church door was quite common practice. Luther himself was unlikely to have anticipated what this seemingly simple act would eventually lead to, but to describe the aftermath of his act as “seismic” doesn’t seem an overstatement.

The era of the Reformation, and also of the counter-Reformation that followed, is among the most crucial periods of European history, and scholars may spend entire lifetimes studying it. I am not a historian, and my understanding of this era may with justice have been described as “sketchy”. However, while great works of art may well transcend their times (and I, for one, believe that they do), they are also, paradoxically, products of their time; and so, to come to even an adequate understanding Titian’s works, we must have some understanding, at least, of the times in which they were created. This Hale gives us: not an in-depth picture of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation (that is not what this book is about), nor an in-depth analysis of the various political power struggles, the various wars, the various territorial and trade disputes, and all the rest of it; but as much of it as is needed for a layman like myself to make at least some sense of the era in which these masterpieces were created.

But of Titian the Person, who lived through it all, we don’t really know much more than we do, say, of Shakespeare the Person. Except that, despite the picture we may still have of what great geniuses ought, at least, to be, they were both shrewd and successful businessmen.

Which leaves, of course, the art.

For any artist whose creative life spans so many years (and Titian’s spans over 60), the nature of the art has to keep renewing itself; otherwise, it becomes stagnant and the fire dies. Titian’s art did most certainly renew itself over the years: the early masterpieces are very different from the later ones. There was a period, when Titian was around 50 or so, when he seemed content merely painting portraits of rich and powerful people – although, perhaps, I shouldn’t use the term “merely”: these portraits are, without exception, magnificent: Titian ranks with the likes of Holbein or Rembrandt as among the greatest of portrait painters. However, he could easily have continued his thriving business painting merely these portraits. But one does not become a great artist without having some sort of artistic vision burning inside, no matter how shrewd a businessman one may be, and Titian, no less than his contemporary Michelangelo, had such fires burning inside. But the essence of these fires is not easy to apprehend, let alone describe.

“The Assumption of the Virgin”, courtesy Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

What strikes one immediately about Titian’s paintings – and especially, I think, his early paintings – is the brilliance and vibrancy of his colours. While Luther was preparing those ninety-five theses that he famously nailed to the church door, Titian, then in his late twenties, was at work on one of the monumental masterpieces of Catholic art – The Assumption of the Virgin for the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church in Venice, where it still hangs. It is a vast work, almost 7 metres in height, and depicts the moment when the Virgin Mary is taken up into Heaven. It is a subject that had been treated before by other artists, but never like this. Raphael had painted the subject some fifteen or so years earlier, and the contrast between the two is instructive. Raphael’s is a calm and serene affair, with the disciples in the lower half of he painting standing in an orderly line, looking up reverently into a heavenly world that is distinctly different from their own earthly world. In this heavenly world, the Virgin Mary, eyes demurely downcast in worship, is being crowned. Titian’s vision, though, is very different. The first thing one notices – at least, the first thing I noticed – was the colour. Instead of casting the scene in the sober and muted hues of Raphael, Titian chose a much warmer palate, and saturated the canvas with the most vivid of colours. Particularly striking is the flame-like red in which he chose to dress the Virgin (rather than in the more traditional blue), and the repetition of that same shade of red in the gowns worn by two of the disciples below: these three figures form an isosceles triangle, with Mary at the apex. And behind Mary is the most extraordinary golden light, which dazzles the viewer as much as it appears to dazzle Mary. Now, how one can paint an unearthly light using what are, after all, merely earthly paints, I do not know, but I cannot think of any light in any other painting I have seen that seems so insistently to belong to another world.

And, again in contrast to Raphael’s painting, there is a sense of drama. The figures here are not idealised representations: these are real, natural people, albeit witnessing a seemingly unreal and supernatural event. Of course, they are in turmoil. Most of the disciples are in the shade: the few whose faces we can see look up in bewilderment. The postures of the others suggest disorientation and confusion. What they are witnessing maybe an other-worldly vision, but it is here – right here, on earth. The heavenly world may be different from the earthly one, but the boundary is not as strictly defined as it is in Raphael’s more ordered vision: here, the muscular arm of one of the disciples seems almost to touch that other world.

And neither is there anything calm and collected about Mary’s reaction: her posture, with her hands raised, may be seen as one of religious ecstasy, but it is also, I think, the posture of an earthly creature startled by the sudden revelation of the Eternal. Caravaggio is the artist often credited with placing people from the real world into his religious scenes, but, on the basis of this painting, I’d say Titian had got there almost a century earlier.

Masterpiece followed masterpiece: religious scenes, mythological scenes, genre scenes, portraits, group portraits, small canvases, large canvases, monumental canvases – all painted with a mastery that seemed able to adapt itself to whatever was required. The tragic, the joyful, the everyday – nothing seemed beyond his scope. Even the erotic. Perhaps, in seeking to distance the sacred calling of Art from mere fleshly lust, we have tried to downplay this aspect of Titian’s art, or, maybe, sublimate it into something that may be thought of as nobler and loftier; but Titian clearly loved the nude female form, and was quite unabashed by it. When Mark Twain described Venus of Urbino as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”, I think he had a pretty good idea of what Titian was depicting. Indeed, I find it hard to see Titian’s nudes, in poses that often anticipate those of Playboy, and miss the delight he took in the female body. From the agony of Christ’s Passion to the voluptuous delights of the female nude: nothing in life was too sacred or too profane for his art.

Titian’s depictions of light, of various types of lights, are still as breathtaking now as they must have seemed back then; his figures are endowed with tremendous life and with vitality, his textures are exquisite, and his colours are like nothing seen before. Of course, other artists have also used vivid colours, but Titian, to a greater extent, I think, than just about any other artist I can think of, seemed to depict a world in which the vividness of the colours seems to define the dynamism and the radiance of life itself.

When an artist’s work ranges so widely, it becomes difficult to identify, let alone describe, the nature of his artistry, or of his artistic vision. The very range of Titian’s work is dazzling: it seems hard to imagine an artist less single-minded. But it is quite sobering to realise that much of what Titian had painted, including many regarded as among his greatest masterpieces, is now lost. The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, for instance, was regarded by many as Titian’s greatest masterpiece: it was destroyed completely by fire in 1867, and what hangs now in its place is a copy made in 1691 by a Johann Carl Loth. How well or otherwise this copy communicates what the original painting had communicated can only be a matter of conjecture.

But looking through the astonishing treasures that remain, I really don’t know that it is possible to pick a single painting as the “greatest” masterpiece. And, contrary to the myth of great artists being recognised only after their deaths, the art of Titian (as of Michelangelo) was recognised in his own times.

Titian was patronised even by the Emperor Charles V, and, after his death, by his son Philip II, both of whom liberally commissioned works from him – portraits of themselves and of their families, and subjects both religious and mythological. It was for Philip that, in the mid-1550s, Titian painted a set of six paintings, now collectively known as “Poesie”, based on episodes from Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses. Hale describes them as:

… first and foremost about erotic passion (or in the case of the Diana pictures about its negation) which for better or worse changes us and determines our destiny. And just as Ovid edited the much older and more detailed Greek myths in order to dramatize that underlying theme, so Titian took liberties with Ovid to convey, in a way that would be rivalled only by Shakespeare, the many manifestations of the most primitive and overwhelming of human emotions: the sadness of anticipated loss, the suspense, danger, cruelty and unfairness, and the sheer anarchic fun. It was in these paintings that Titian … showed himself to be the dispenser of all emotions and the plenipotentiary of the senses.

The series consists of; Danaë (the version currently in Apsley House, London, is now believed to be the one presented to Philip); Venus and Adonis (Prado, Madrid); Perseus and Andromeda (Wallace Collection, London); Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Collection, Boston); and two paintings featuring Diana, now shown in rotation in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the National Gallery, London – Diana and Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. Lucian Freud once described these two Diana paintings as simply “the most beautiful paintings in the world”.

Though now scattered around different galleries, in 2020, somewhat delayed by the pandemic, they were they brought together and exhibited in a single room. This exhibition toured the world, and I saw it when it came to the National Gallery, London. The exhibition was titled, perhaps rather cheesily, Love, Desire, Death. Big themes, certainly, and perhaps themes that all major artists have to address. But there was no sense of portentiousness. I felt little sense of awe or of reverence that one often feels in the presence of art of this stature. Rather, what I felt was a sense of exhilaration, of elation; a sense of being in the midst of the most extraordinary whirl of colours and of movement. Or, as Sheila Hale puts it, a sense of “sheer anarchic fun”.

But, along with the anarchic fun, there is also cruelty. And it seems to me that as Titian entered into his old age, this element of cruelty started becoming an increasingly salient feature in his work. Not that Titian hadn’t depicted tragic themes before, but the vibrancy of his colours and the exuberance of his compositions communicated in those earlier works an intoxicated sense of elation, of exhilaration, that seemed somehow to counteract the tragic. But in his later paintings, the tone seems to me to become darker, both literally and metaphorically. The palette becomes more restrained, the brushwork rougher, the finish less glossy; and there seems less radiance in the light. At times, indeed, he seems to be depicting wat Milton later famously referred to as “darkness visible”: rather than a brilliant or a gracious light bathing the world, we seem at times, in his very late work, to be enveloped in some profound murk lit only fitfully by spots of light spontaneously bursting and dying in the air.

“The Crowning of Thorns”, courtesy Louvre, Paris

To see the contrast most clearly, one may compare two paintings of his on the same subject – The Crowning of Thorns. The earlier version, now hanging in the Louvre in Paris, dates from around 1540, when Titian was around 50 or so (his exact date of birth is uncertain); the later, now hanging in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, was painted some thirty-five years later in extreme old age. The composition is much the same in both, but where, in the earlier painting, the vibrancy of the colours and of the light involves us in the sense of movement, there is no mistaking the terror and the despondency of the later vision, painted with brushstrokes that are far less smooth, and seen seemingly through broken shards of light. The vision has, without doubt, darkened.

“The Crowning of Thorns”, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Not that the turn was sudden, of course. Even in the “Poesie”, we had had more than a few hints of the tragic. Take, say, the painting of Diana and Callisto: In Ovid’s poem, Callisto was one of Diana’s handmaiden, but was banished after she was judged to have broken her vow of chastity. (Never mind that she had been raped by Jupiter.) In Titian’s painting, against a dramatically darkening sky, the pregnant Callisto is dragged before Diana by the other handmaidens, and right at the very centre of the composition is Diana’s imperiously outstretched finger, condemning without sympathy. If the mood isn’t quite tragic, it isn’t, perhaps, too far off.

“Diana and Callisto”, courtesy National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, & National Gallery, London

But this was not the last painting by Titian about Diana, and neither is this the last time Diana passes her divine and inhuman judgement on an uncomprehending humanity. In one of the paintings in the “Poesie” he had painted for Philip, he had shown Actaeon stumbling upon Diana’s bower; The Death of Actaeon, now hanging in the National Gallery, London, shows its terrible aftermath. Actaeon is transformed into a stag, and is torn to pieces by his own hounds.

“Death of Actaeon”, courtesy National Gallery, London

Whether Titian had intended this as an addition to the series is not known. My guess is that it isn’t, as its tone, far from projecting a sense of dizzying intoxication, is now grim. The palette is far more restricted than it had been – even though a forest scene, there’s barely any trace of greenery – and the whole thing seems oppressive and airless. The goddess, faceless (her facial features are not seen) delivers a terrible judgement on humanity that can make no sense to human sensibilities.

This was one of the paintings still in the studio at the time of Titian’s death, and there is some controversy about whether it is finished, but I am not sure it matters. Over his last two decades or so, Titan had moved away from the highly finished works of his earlier years to something much newer and much more innovative: in a great many paintings now, not only are the individual brush-strokes not hidden, they’re not meant to be hidden: we’re supposed to see the internal workings, as it were; the very textures of the brush-strokes is part of the effect these pictures are intended to create. I am no art historian, but I think this was new, and was taken up afterwards by entire generations of artists.

Titian had painted tragic subjects before, but comparing his earlier tragic works to his later is a bit like comparing Romeo and Juliet to King Lear. The exuberance has gone; in its stead has descended a profound gloom, as mankind suffers dumbly under divine judgements that, to human standards, can make no sense. The Flaying of Marsyas, now in the State Museum of Kroměříž in the Czech Republic, was also one of the paintings still in Titian’s studio at the time of his death, and depicts the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the satyr, Marsyas, who had challenged the god Apollo to a contest of musical skill. Marsyas had lost, of course, and the punishment divinely deemed suitable for his transgression was for him to be skinned alive. In this painting, right down the central vertical axis, we have the startling and rather grotesque image of the satyr Marsyas hung upside down, his goat’s legs prominent. The hideous act is skinning alive has already begun, and a puppy sniffs at the blood that is soaking the ground. To the left, a musician, possibly Apollo himself, plays a stringed instrument (a lira di braccio), gazing upward, and seemingly oblivious to the atrocity carried out right under his nose. And to the right, King Midas looks down upon the skinning: there is no trace of horror either in his posture or in his expression. These figures are all painted close to the plane of the canvas, taking up the foreground; and what little space there is between these figures is painted with textures so thick as to appear airless. The colours are bright, but not really in harmony: they appear garish. And the light is dense and murky. I saw this painting when it was exhibited in London nearly twenty years ago, and it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, as grotesque and as disturbing as anything I’ve seen. It projects a sense of terror that I have experienced only one other time in the presence of art – when I stood before the Black Paintings of Goya in the Prado.

“The Flaying of Marsyas”, courtesy State Museum of Kroměříž

There’s a late Nymph and Shepherd hanging in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, but we’re far from a pastoral idyll here: the shepherd holds his pipe, and the nymph smiles at him, but the landscape these two traditional lovers inhabit, far from evoking the pastoral, seems to speak of some apocalyptic devastation. It’s as if Titian had deliberately seized upon the traditional images of pastoral grace precisely in order to subvert them. But to what purpose he subverts them in such a manner, it is for us to decide.

Pietà“, courtesy Gallerie dell’Academia, Venice

And there is the enigmatic and terrifying Pietà, which Titian, seemingly, had intended to be placed over his own tomb. There seems a sort of nostalgic glance back at the graceful and radiant paintings of Giovanni Bellini, who had been active in Venice when Titian had been starting out: Bellini had often set his figures within a niche, with an arch overhead. (The San Zaccaria Alterpiece is a very beautiful example of Bellini’s art.) In Titian’s painting, we have, once again, the arch and the niche, but there is nothing graceful or radiant about this. The arch itself seems constructed of large, ugly stone, roughly put together. The light, once again, is unreal, but it is no heavenly light; we seem, rather, in some unearthly region, as far as can be imagined from the light of Paradise that had greeted Mary on her assumption in that painting from over fifty years earlier. The paintwork here is rough: the paint on the chest of the dead Christ seems to have been applied with the fingers rather than with a brush. Mary looks upon her dead son in quiet contemplation, but, towering over her and forming the apex of an assymetrical triangle, is the gigantic figure of Mary Magdalene, screaming into the dark. Standing before this extraordinary painting in the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice is a chilling experience: one feels in the presence of death itself. One feels the need immediately afterwards to go over to the Frari church to see again The Assumption of the Virgin to remind oneself of what Titian’s vision once had been.

It is hard to say why Titian’s vision darkened. From the evidence of his paintings, it was a gradual rather than a sudden change. But I don’t know that biographical reasons, even assuming they exist, could take us any closer to the heart of this vast and magnificent body of work. Great artists will always look beyond what is immediately in front of them: studying what is immediately in front of them can be instructive, but we mustn’t expect that to unlock the mysteries that all great art contains.

It is hard to see how Sheila Hale’s biography of Titian could possibly be bettered. She tells us what little we know of him as a person, without passing judgement on any aspect of it; and, more importantly, she gives us, with great scholarly rigour, a fascinating picture of the historic and cultural background against which Titian created these magnificent works. Reading this book, we come to understand these works in the context of their times; but if we are to understand how these works – from the profound sensuality and exuberance of his earlier paintings to the dark and comfortless vision of the later – we must, as ever, look for ourselves. The miracles are right there, before us: all we need to do is to look. Look, and wonder.

A Visit to the Prado, or, What I did on my Holidays

There are, next to each other, two fridge magnets, on our fridge (as one might expect), of Rembrandt’s painting “The Jewish Bride”, and of Velazquez’ painting “Las Meninas”. And I used to say that one was the greatest painting I have seen, and the other the greatest painting I haven’t. Well, I have finally remedied that. Heaven knows why it has taken so long. We finally made that trip to Madrid, and spent a day at the Prado – one day was never going to be enough, but it will have to do for now – and so, yes, I have now seen “Las Meninas” as well.


Visiting the Prado is a dizzying experience. There is far too much to take in in a single visit. After a while, one finds oneself walking past paintings one knows to be masterpieces, but feeling too saturated with what one has already seen to try to absorb anything more. And what about all those other paintings that deserve the time I did not have, and the attention that had already drained away? Well, another visit, perhaps, some other time. Maybe a longer stay in Madrid, and more than a mere day. My mind these days is too small to absorb too many things within so short a space of time. (This, incidentally, applies to my reading also, but let us not get side-tracked.)

Not that I responded to everything. I can make nothing at all of Hieronymus Bosch for instance, and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, so often cited as one of the gallery’s highlights, left me cold. And what is one to make of Rubens? Now, there are a great many paintings by Rubens that I admire – some immensely – but he did churn them out, didn’t he? And yes, I love flamboyance: if anything, my tastes run towards the flamboyant rather than towards the restrained. But there were times I stood in front of some of those canvases, and thought to myself, “This is just silly!” Standing in front of “The Adoration of the Magi”, I actually found myself laughing: not quite, perhaps, the most appropriate response. And yes, this is a comment on me, not on Rubens. But, much though I love the dramatic and the colourful, certain things are beyond even my threshold.

And El Greco. There was a strange one. There was a time when the paintings of El Greco fascinated me, with those colours, at once vibrant and austere, and those forms curiously elongated, but I can see little in them these days except a sort of mystic terror. I don’t think I am so earthbound as to reject anything that may be termed “spiritual” (I use inverted commas there as an admission of defeat: “spiritual” seems far too vague a term to describe what I would like to convey, but neither can I think of a suitable alternative). But, whatever “spirituality” I may profess, an artistic vision that appears to me to offer little other than terror is not one that speaks to me. Not these days, at least: perhaps my receptivity had been broader in my younger days.

But let us not dwell on all that I failed to respond to. What is the point, when there was so much that transported me? Merely to list all the paintings that I loved would be tedious, certainly for myself, and even more certainly, I think, for the reader. So let me highlight just a few paintings that made a particular impression on me. Please indulge me as I choose my personal choices – five paintings that I would take with me from this gallery for my own imaginary private collection.

But choosing merely a few highlights is not very easy in a gallery such as this, where, after having been held transfixed for God knows how long by Velazquez’ “Las Meninas”, I turned round to see through an open doorway Titian’s magnificent equestrian portrait of Carlos V. And this would be my first choice.


“Carlos V” by Titian, courtesy Prado Museum

Of course, I suppose I should pick “Las Meninas” too – perhaps the most famous painting in a gallery bursting at the seams with famous paintings. But no – for Velazquez, I will pick his portrait of Sebastian de Morra. He was a dwarf, and was in the court merely to amuse the courtiers with his short stature. But Velazquez paints him as a he would an emperor. He doesn’t hide his physique – quite the opposite – but gives this man, the purpose of whose very existence was merely to provoke mirth, a dignity and a nobility that is nothing short of majestic.


“Sebastian de Morra” by Velazquez, courtesy Prado Museum

My next choice is not so well-known. It is a still life by Francisco de Zurbarán, and at first glance, it is simplicity itself: four vessels, one of metal, the other three of earthenware, arranged in a straight line parallel to the plane of vision, none of them touching or overlapping with each other. Other than these vessels, and the ledge on which they are placed, all is dark. What could be simpler, or, one might think, less remarkable? And yet, the painting projects a sense of stillness, of utter silence, that seems almost sacred. I had said earlier that I do not reject the “spiritual”, and, given my sensibilities, I must say that I find greater spirituality here than in all the mystic visions of El Greco. (Once again, this is not a comment on El Greco … etc. etc. …)


“Four Vessels” by Zurbaran, courtesy Prado Museum

It was towards the end of my visit of the gallery, after many hours’ wandering, and as I was nearing the end of my attention span, that I found myself face to face with Rogier van der Weiden’s “Descent from the Cross”. And it’s one of those occasions where I wish I were more skilled at this ekpharsis business. I wish I could explain why it is that I find myself so unutterably moved by the fact of Christ’s right hand and the Virgin’s left hand being parallel to each other. But I can’t. I can’t explain anything at all about this wondrous painting. Perhaps I had best resort to that old cliché of certain matters transcending analysis, and leave it there.


“Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weiden, courtesy Prado Museum

My last choice is a Goya. Not one of those horrific “black paintings” – but one he painted at the end of that series: “The Milkmaid of Bordeaux”. I may be completely wrong in this, but standing in front of that painting, I get a sense of serenity. Through that web of silvers and blues and greens, there seems, to me at least, a sense of having, as it were, come through: after all the horrors, after a journey through Hell itself, Goya presents us with a vision of radiance in a simple figure of a milkmaid. But it is also the vision of someone who knows what he has gone through, and hasn’t forgotten. It is a vision of serenity despite all the terrors. All this is no doubt very fanciful, and I do not possess the skill to explain why I feel this way. I can only report on that fact that I do.


“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Another trip beckons. I don’t know when: it has taken many, many years just to make my first visit. But I know I have to return. I can’t just leave it here.


A confrontation with Manet’s Olympia

Manet’s Olympia predictably scandalised the public when it was first exhibited in 1863, and it’s not hard to see why. Even now, in our more enlightened times, there’s something about that painting I find curiously disconcerting. I always find myself uncomfortable standing before it, or even when I see it in reproduction. And, when I stood before it again last week at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I found myself disconcerted all over again.


“Olympia” by Edouard Manet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris


It is not the nudity that is disconcerting. Art lovers are hardly unused to nudity: they were familiar with it even in the mid nineteenth century. The same year that Manet exhibited Olympia, Alexandre Cabanel, a respected and respectable artist, exhibited The Birth of Venus, in which Venus is forced into a tortuous pose so as to reveal as much of her nude female form as is possible. It is a painting that seems almost to salivate over the female form in a most lascivious manner. And yet, it created no shock, no scandal: indeed the painting was actually bought by Napoleon III himself. And yet, the same society that had no difficulty with the flagrant titillation of Cabanel’s painting found itself shocked by Manet’s. Whatever the reason for the shock, it was not the nudity.


“The Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel, courtesy Musée de Louvre, Paris


Of course, as any basic primer will tell you, Manet and various other artists of his generation, known collectively (though not really very helpfully) as the “Impressionists”, rebelled against the accepted norms of the time, and changed the face of Western art. (Or something like that.) It is also fairly well-known that these artists only challenged the norms of the time, but were fully aware of, and, indeed, respected, the older traditions of Western art. Manet’s outrageous Olympia, for instance, clearly references Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the comparisons between the two masterpieces are fascinating.


“Venus of Urbino” by Titian, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence


The title of Titian’s painting refers to the goddess Venus, but the person we see is clearly a courtesan. Or, more plainly, a prostitute, though, admittedly, a high-class one. The two ladies adopt almost an identical pose, but with some significant variations. While Titian’s courtesan slightly inclines her head, Manet’s holds her head up straight. They both look directly at the viewer, but the expression on the face of Titian’s courtesan is gentle, and welcoming: the expression in Manet’s painting is bold, direct, even, perhaps, confrontational. The flower in the hair and the ribbon round the neck are clearly intended to be seductive, but there’s nothing seductive about the utterly unembarrassed and challenging look she directs at the viewer. If anything, it is we who wither in the spotlight of her gaze. (Cabanel’s Venus, in contrast, does not show her face at all: she is merely a body, and nothing more.)

And the left hand. Titian’s courtesan places her left hand gently upon her pudenda, pretending coyly to hide the very part of her body she is drawing attention to. In Manet’s painting, the left hand is placed upon her privates palm downwards, as if it has been slapped down. Titian’s courtesan is long-limbed and graceful: Manet’s is short-limbed; indeed, were it not for the fully developed breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a child.

It is no wonder Manet’s painting shocked. And I find myself shocked still. Well, if not perhaps shocked – for it is very bad form these days to admit to being shocked by mere works of art – I find myself feeling very uncomfortable. For Manet’s painting does, indeed, speak to me. That brazen figure, so unashamed of her nudity, is saying something. And what she seems to be saying is:

“Have you paid yet?”

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (In the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…