T itian is the consummate artist’s artist. The 16th century master transformed the language of Venetian painting, evolving a new figurative style, a new kind of landscape and, most crucially, a broad and expressive handling of oil paint that astounded his contemporaries. His bravura brushwork, often suggesting form rather than describing it, was to dazzle artists from Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez in the 17th century, down to Constable, Manet and beyond. Most innovative and influential of all were the cycle of six mythological paintings made for the future Philip II of Spain. Freud longed to own one; Van Dyck did.
Titian was the most admired artist in Europe, and these mythologies offered him the opportunity to produce explicitly erotic images - all the more alluring for the sensuousness of the artist’s manipulation of pigment
They were not alone. Titian was the most admired artist in Europe, and these mythologies offered him the opportunity to produce explicitly erotic images - barely clad or nude nymphs, goddesses and mortals, all the more alluring for the sensuousness of the artist’s manipulation of pigment. No work in the group was more in demand than the one which most shocked his contemporaries, Venus and Adonis, dispatched to Philip in 1554. (It was the bare buttocks that inflamed the 16th century male gaze, the Spanish ambassador finding it ‘too lascivious.’)
Titian had painted an earlier version of the subject for the Farnese family, and with his workshop went on to produce at least a dozen versions of Philip’s canvas, now in the Prado. Some were variants of the composition bearing clear evidence of the master’s hand, others were straightforward copies. It is one of the very best versions, and the most fully developed in terms of narrative, that takes centre stage at Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening Sale on 7 December 2022.
Titian referred to these mythological paintings as poesie – poems in paint. They appear to have been conceived as freely-adapted visual equivalents to texts such as Ovid’s poetical masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, the ultimate classical sourcebook for artists. For Venus and Adonis, Titian subverts the story, choosing to have the Goddess of Love imploring Adonis not to leave and warning him of the perils of hunting dangerous beasts. Adonis, a young mortal of exceptional - and androgynous - beauty, is as impatient to depart as his baying hounds. Cupid, still asleep, can offer her no assistance. Our eye is drawn to the landscape beyond which, unique to this version, reveals the impending fate of he who dares ignore a goddess. Adonis is gored by a wild boar sent by a jealous Mars, and dies. Venus in her chariot, bursting through the clouds, is too late to save him.
Our eye is drawn to the landscape beyond which, unique to this version, reveals the impending fate of he who dares ignore a goddess
Extensive research has reconstructed the provenance of this painting back to Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736) - a more recent owner was the British history painter Benjamin West who used it as a source for his own work (he sold it in 1809 for a mighty £4,000). Recent technical analysis undertaken by the art historian Thomas Dalla Costa reveals the extent to which details of the composition were subtly altered or added during its execution, arguing for a date of 1555-57 and an attribution to Titian with the assistance of his workshop.
‘It is fascinating to compare it with the version in the Getty painted around the same time,’ enthuses George Gordon, Co-Chairman of Old Masters Paintings at Sotheby’s. ‘There are passages in both that are very, very beautiful, but also different’, he says, citing the subtlety of the articulation of Venus’s back in this painting, the doves and the draperies, the tension in Adonis’s arms as he holds back the hounds, as well as the brilliant flash of blue on one collar. Philip II’s painting and its several versions stand as vivid testimony to the artist’s ceaseless inventiveness and ingenuity.