Titian: Love, Desire, Death, Exhibition, National Gallery, London: until 17 January 2021

Titian’s epic series of large-scale mythological paintings, known as Poesie paintings, is brought together in its entirety for the first time since the late 16th century at the National Gallery in March 2020.

Painted between about 1551 and 1562 the Poesie paintings are among the most original visual interpretations of Classical myth of the early modern era and they are touchstone works in the history of European painting for their rich, expressive rendering. 

Following its landmark decision to lend works on a temporary basis for the first time in its 119-year history, the Wallace Collection will lend its painting from the cycle, Perseus and Andromeda, (1554–6), to the exhibition in Trafalgar Square.  

The National Gallery’s own Death of Actaeon (1559–75), originally conceived as part of the series, but only executed much later and never delivered, will also be displayed in London. 

All the paintings revolve around love and desire: their fruits and perils. Combining Titian’s remarkable talent as both artist and storyteller, the mythological scenes capture moments of high drama; a fatal encounter, a shameful discovery, a hasty abduction. In these paintings Titian expertly manipulates paint and colour to dazzling effect; capturing luminous flesh, sumptuous fabrics, water and reflection, as well as atmospheric, almost enchanted, landscapes. His characters show very human, and relatable, emotions: euphoria, concern, guilt, surprise, shame, desperation, anguish, and terror.  

The paintings depict stories from Classical mythology, primarily drawn from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Because he considered them visual equivalents to poetry, Titian called them his poesie. He distilled in them the knowledge of painting and visual storytelling that he had acquired over five decades as an artist to create some of his most profound statements on human passion and irrationality, on love and death. The series was commissioned by Philip II of Spain, who highly unusually gave Titian an open brief to select his subjects.

Letters between Titian and Philip show that the Poesie were planned to be displayed together in a single room but, since Philip was constantly changing residence during the course of their creation, it is unlikely that the patron was thinking of a specific destination for the group. The paintings are a prime example of a great artist in rare accord with a sensitive patron, continuing to grow and deepen his artistic outlook into his older years.  

The commission was a turning point in Titian’s career. It provided him with an opportunity to further his skills at staging complex narratives, handling difficult and ambiguous emotion and painting expressively to appeal to the senses.  

Shortly after finishing Diana and Actaeon, Titian began a sequel for Philip showing the story’s tragic conclusion: The Death of Actaeon. Although he originally conceived this picture as part of the series, he never sent it to Phillip. He worked on it later, probably in the 1560s or early 1570s but we do not know for whom. It may have remained in his studio until his death in 1576.

The artist was already known for mythological paintings that set animated groups of figures in idyllic landscapes. His breakthrough work in this genre was the dazzling set of pictures he made for Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, which included Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–3) now in the National Gallery.

Of Titian’s six Poesie for Philip II of Spain, only two remained in Madrid, Spain: Danaë and Venus and AdonisDanaë  remained longer, but was taken by Joseph Bonaparte in 1813 and seized by Wellington in the Battle of Vitoria, after which it came to England. Venus and Adonis was also in England, as Titian sent it to Philip when he was in London, having just married Mary Tudor (1516–58). 

The other four, Perseus and AndromedaRape of EuropaDiana and Callisto, and Diana and Actaeon, plus the unfinished The Death of Actaeon, passed by different routes into the collection of Philippe II, Duke d’Orléans (1674–1723). When this collection was auctioned in London in 1798, the five Poesie were divided but remained in British collections throughout the 19th century. Perseus and Andromeda was unsold at first, and then bought by the DuKe d’Orléans in 1805.

The outstanding quality of the Poesie attracted offers from wealthy collectors abroad and in 1896 Rape of Europa was sold to Isabella Stewart Gardner for her collection in Boston, USA. However, Perseus and Andromeda was secured for Britain the following year as part of the Wallace Collection bequest. In 1972, when The Death of Actaeon was offered for sale, the National Gallery successfully purchased the painting with the help of government funds and following a nationwide public appeal. In 2009, the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland jointly acquired Diana and Actaeon; and in 2012, Diana and Callisto, securing the last two of these masterpieces for the public.

Titian, Rape of Europa, 1562 © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Titian, Rape of Europa, 1562 © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
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