Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian
- Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian
The Penitent Magdalene
- oil on panel
- 43 1/2 by 31 in.; 110.5 by 78.5 cm.
Possibly Marten Kretzer, Amsterdam, by 1648 (see note);
English collection (according to Pallucchini);
With Ettore Sestieri, Rome, from whom purchased by;
With Leger Galleries, London purchased by;
Dr. James and Julia Rush, 1971;
By whom sold, New York, Sotheby's, New York, June 2, 1989, lot 47;
Ishizuka collection, Tokyo, Japan from whom acquired by the present collector.
New York, Finch College Museum of Art, The Richard H. Rush Collection, February 25- April 25, 1971, cat. no. 20, reproduced (as Titian).
Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth College Hood Museum of Art, From Titian to Sargent: Dartmouth Alumni Friends and Collection, September- November, 1987 (as Titian).
R. Pallucchini, Tiziano, Florence 1969, vol. I, p. 325, vol. II, reproduced, plates 525, 526 (detail), as by Titian, as dateable 1570/75;
H. Goldfarb, From Titian to Sargent: Dartmouth Alumni Friends and Collection, 1987, reproduced on the cover, pp. 3-4, reproduced, fig. 10. (as by Titian)
A. Rothe, "Titian's Penitent Magdalen in the J. Paul Getty Museum", in Studi Tizianeschi, I, Spring 2003, pp. 39-42;
N.H.J.Hall, "A Taste for Italian Art in Holland," in Hall and Knight, 2001, p. 24, illus. (as by Titian);
W.R. Rearick, "Le 'Maddalene Penitenti' di Tiziano," in Arte Veneta, vol. 58, 2001 (but published in 2003), p. 36, and footnotes17 and 36 (as by Titian with studio, known only from photographs, but confusing the support and provenance of the present work);
P. Humfrey, Titian: the Complete Paintings, New York 2007, p. 328 (under the entry for the Hermitage picture, cat. no. 255, as one of a group of works "by Titian and/or his assistants).
Looking heavenward towards a celestial burst of light with tear-filled eyes, this Penitent Magdalene exemplifies Titian's most emotive and humane religious painting. The innate grandeur and evident humanity of the figure of the sinner-turned-saint had wide appeal to a post-Tridentine audience, and the subject of the Magdalene became one that Titian returned to several times in his career. As a result, a number of autograph versions of the Magdalene composition exist, numbering as many as seven extant versions that Titian was to paint over a period of four decades.1 It is not surprising then that the present panel, an extraordinarily expressive and authoritative final statement on the theme, laid undetected for some time, despite its unmistakable quality. Rodolfo Pallucchini was the first to publish this work in his 1969 monograph, dating it to 1570-75 (see literature). Years earlier, in a letter dated Venice June 30, 1958, he described the panel as "a masterpiece of Titian's last period...the high quality of its style lead[ing] me to suppose that [it is] the last Magdalene known to us to have been painted by Titian." As Pallucchini continues, "It stands apart from the others...for technical reasons, since chromatic and liquid effects have their raison d'être in the fact that the color, extended on the preparation adhering to the board, did not get dry, as in so many other cases, but has retained an extraordinary freshness." The painting was first exhibited as a Titian in 1971 in the Richard Rush Collection and, again, in 1987 in the From Titian to Sargent: Dartmouth Alumni Friends and Collection exhibition. Two years later, the painting would go on the auction block (Sotheby's, New York, June 2, 1989, lot 47). It was purchased there by a private collector and has rarely been seen in public in the intervening two decades.
Titian's Penitent Magdalenes:
The composition of the Penitent Magdalene was one of Titian's greatest popular and critical successes. A wide audience for the image was accessed by Titian himself, who employed the Flemish engraver Cornelis Cort to engrave his composition to make it available to an international clientele (see fig. 1). The Magdalene was eulogized by the connoisseur and great Italian poet Giambattista Marino in a lengthy poem, although which of the pictures he might have seen is unclear. Praise also came from further afield; a Titian Magdalene in the collection of the Amsterdam collector Marten Kretzer (which has been possibly connected with the present version, see Hall literature) was praised in 1648 by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel, and two years later by Lambert van den Bos, who highlighted the painting's emotional appeal:
Op haer bedruckt en bangh gelaet
En merckt d'ontsteltnis in haer wesen,
Waer in de droefheydt staet te lesen,
En rouw die vast om't harte slaet.2
The earliest autograph version, most widely-published and recognized, is that in the Pitti Palace, Florence, completed from 1530-35. That painting may have been painted for Vittoria Colonna, the poet and friend of Michelangelo; the painting was certainly recorded in the Medici collection by 1631, when it came as part of the dowry of Vittoria della Rovere.3 Like the present picture, the "Pitti" Magdalene is painted on panel, and is posed in the same way as all of the subsequent examples, with the saint looking up, her arms folded across her chest. It is also, however, more overtly sensual than the later pictures, with the Magdalen's hair and arms not fully covering her exposed breasts.4 The Pitti painting was followed closely in intervals by the half-clothed versions in a private collection, Italy (circa 1551-4), and ones in the Hermitage and the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples (both generally dated to the 1560s). In these paintings Titian developed the theme further, adding elements and placing the figure in a wider, more sweeping "proto-Romantic" landscape. All of these pictures depict the Magdelene in a loosely fitted shift, over which is a striped garment, and with her open book is resting upon a skull.
However, the closest comparison to the present Magdalene, is the picture now in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, which has been dated to 1555-65 (see fig. 2). In both pictures, the skull underneath the book is removed, and the background is a more open vista, devoid of the tree and foliage of other examples. The Getty Magdalene is painted on canvas, and has had a checkered attributional history; its autograph status was supported by a wide range of impressive connoisseurs, including Pignatti, Waagen, Valentiner, and Waterhouse, amongst others. Some other scholars considered it, however, the work of an imitator, in some part due to the fact that the painting had been badly restored and there were large areas of overpaint obscuring much of the original surface.5 This is the conclusion that Wethey came to when considering the Getty picture, that although "the general effect is that of a work of high quality...the extensive restorations have contributed much to that illusion" and thus he preferred to retain it as a school work.6
About five years ago, the painting was cleaned and fully examined in a careful restoration undertaken by Andrea Rothe. Numerous pentimenti were found throughout the picture, most of which were not visible to the naked eye, and only detected in x-rays. Some of these were quite significant; perhaps most telling of the master's creative process was the significant change—not reflected in any of the other Magdalens—of her left arm reaching not across her body, but to the top of the book as if to hold it open (the ghostly image of her fingers is still slightly visible to the naked eye). These observations have lead to a general reassessment of the Getty picture's autograph status, and most subsequent scholars have concurred that it is fully autograph, or autograph with some studio assistance.
Indeed, the reappearance of the present Penitent Magdalene now allows an opportunity to see it also in a new light. As in the case of the Getty Magdalene, a restoration of the present panel was undertaken in 2001, and areas of overpaint were removed to reveal the original tonal values of the picture, and the overall good state of the figure of the Magdalene itself. Much of this old restoration was concentrated in darker areas of the background, and now the full force of Titian's free and expressionistic brushwork in the sky and landscape is now visible. In addition, pentimenti that appear to have been toned over in earlier restorations are now more evident.7 These include changes in the contour of the sleeve of the figure of the Magdalene at right, as well as what would appear to have been intended as a fold of white drapery underneath the right wrist of the saint, which Titian—in an attempt to give distance between his figure and the tufted rock she has converted into a lectern for her book—has left in shadow. This lead white pigment appears to have been applied in bold strokes in that area, and also is visible beneath the striped sleeve to the right, almost as if the artist was indicating the form of the sleeve itself.
Also interesting is the support that the artist chose on which to present this image of the Magdalene. The picture is painted on a large, softwood panel, of a size and format that Titian had favored for portraits in the 1540's.8 Panels as a support are somewhat rare in Titian's oeuvre, particularly later in his career. Reasons for this have been remarked upon by scholars in the past, and in some cases are common sense: canvas was able to support a humid Venetian climate; it was a cheaper and more readily available alternative; it was easier to transport to distant clients. The use of panel, however, seems to have been a conscious choice of the artist, or—perhaps more likely—the client. Certainly Titian was instructed to use unusual supports by patrons; Charles V asked him to use stone for a Mater Dolorosa (1555, Prado, Madrid) and other devotional pictures of smaller format for the emperor were also painted on panel. A large panel of this size, however, is rarer. Of the Magdalenes, only the versions in the Pitti (which is smaller and earlier in Titian's career) and the Hermitage (which is slightly larger, and which as with many pictures in the Russian Imperial collections was transferred to canvas in the 19th Century) were painted on panel.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the present Penitent Magdalene is the technique with which it is painted. The landscape background—and indeed parts of the saint's hair and drapery—is one of the most remarkable features of the present picture, far more freely executed than the figure itself. This inevitably led Pallucchini to wonder whether the aged Titian might have resumed work on an abandoned painting of the 1530s. He states: "This Magdalen was certainly not painted before 1570, but more probably afterwards. It belongs to the last years of Titian's life, to the time which was perhaps the most modern and elevated in his style, the peak of cosmic lyricism. In the excited looseness of the background and foreground with the book, skulls and drapery of the female figure, there seems to be counterpoised in some degree clearer and more decisive workmanship in the face and the flesh. One should not therefore reject...(the) supposition that Titian has brought out, in the last years of his life a work begun, let us say thirty years before. However, even if this were so, and Titian had restarted work on a Magdalen begun some decades previously [and so of the same type as the Pitti] there is no difference in the quality of the picture taken as a whole, because even the figure, which conserves the classic dignity of the Pitti painting is bathed as if in a more fluid light, mixed with a softness of color, which signifies that the work on the painting, once renewed, was revivified with a new fountain of creative imagination."
Of itself, this argument may seem rather surprising, not least in view of the numerous similarities between the present picture and the Hermitage and Naples pictures. However, the differences between it and them all bring it closer to the Pitti picture than they are. Thus, the Penitent Magdalene has no skull (a momento mori) under her book, her right hand is more vertical, and she looks not straight upward but slightly to her left. Furthermore, the fact that the present picture was executed on panel, not canvas, would be extremely surprising for a small-scale Titian of the 1570s, but would accord with the Pitti picture, which is on panel, and the Hermitage picture, which was later transferred from panel to canvas. As Pallucchini best explains, "in this painting Titian has combined two thematic experiences, that of the Pitti Magdalen, painted thirty years before, and the Hermitage version, the figure of the Magdalen is given more prominence: her vibrant passionate nature here more composed, assuming in the face a classical beauty which concedes nothing in emotion; at the same time, it seems to vibrate in unison with the tempestuous sky at sunset."
The penitent beauty, shown to the waist, is easily recognized as the converted prostitute by her long, reddish hair and the ointment jar to her right. The foremost attraction of the painting is its great sensuality. This nude physical aspect had prevailed earlier in Leonardo's Magdalen and those of his school, but whether Titian consciously admired them, through copies or otherwise, remains unascertained.9 Typical in such paintings, is the Magdalene portrayed in the cave, with a parapet sometimes before her that creates a marked distance between her and her devotee. Titian, however, omits the cave altogether, opening a dialogue with the monumental female figure whose vitality is overwhelmingly manifest, not only through her half-length presentation but also and most emphatically in Titian's facture. With her golden hair, snow-white neck and small, firm breasts, she fully corresponds to the mid-16th-century ideal of female beauty.
The Penitent Magdalene covers her nudity with her hands, arms and long splendid hair. The pose of the arms derives principally from the classicus locus, Venus pudica, which traditionally signifies modesty. Here, however, the effect seems to be more sensual than chaste: the position of the right arm that should cover both breasts in fact directs the viewer's glance toward them instead, paralleled by the left arm and hand. The long hair is also a perennial symbol of sexual licentiousness as the grasping left hand seems to arouse further fantasy. Scholars have commented on the Magdalene type in this regard for years. According to great 19th-century scholar Jacob Burckhardt, "In the famous Magdalen, the penitent sinner was supposed to be portrayed, this is obviously a side-issue in the wonderful woman, whose hair streams around her beautiful body like waves."10 Crowe and Cavalcaselle asserted that '"Titian, had no other purpose in view than to represent a handsome girl"11and Hans Tietze stated succinctly, "she is a ravishing penitent without any religious connotations."12 More recently, attempts have been made to understand Titian's intention, as David Rosand believes that "Titian's penitent Magdalen belongs to a special genre that that the artist himself created for his contemporaries: a religious image, overt in the sensuality of its appeal, that at once inspires devotion and sustains delection."13
This painting of a repentant Mary Magdalene lifting her teary eyes to heaven was meant to inspire a greater spiritual devotion, at a time when the Protestant Reformation was challenging Catholicism. Images of Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman whom Jesus found worthy to redeem and who would spend the rest of her life in solitude to atone for her sins, were especially prevalent during the Counter Reformation, a period of devout Catholicism that lasted from approximately 1540 to 1640. Upon seeing Titian's conception of Mary Magdalene, Vasari declared that the picture "profoundly stirs the emotions of all who look at it; and, moreover, although the figure Mary Magdalene is extremely lovely it moves one to thoughts of pity rather than desire."14
Titian transcends such apparent aestheticism and eroticism by investing his retelling of an oft-illustrated biblical subject with a deep sense of poetry and humanity. As well as introducing a number of divergences of detail in the many Magdalene versions, he provides a highly intimate gloss on the subject by evoking a mood of sadness and seeming eventual hope and renewal, not unknown to the Counter-Reformation milieu. The effect of psychological tension in the Magdalene, created by hands, hair and tearful eyes, is expressively complemented by the turbulent landscape, and especially also by means of Titian's most powerful artistic resource of all, his unparalleled mastery of the medium of oil paint. The colors are as intense and varied in the other variants, but here the planes are constantly broken by brushstrokes of different color, breadth, thickness and form, so that the overall chromatic effect is not so much of a bold or decorative effect as of a vibrating, unnerving and textured ethos. The way in which form and color in the present Penitent Magdalene seem to be in constant flux is characteristic of his late style in general, especially his portraiture, but in this case it also provides an eloquent visual analogue to the underlying theme of repentance, a tragically isolating penitential grief to be precise.
That the penitent theme may have had a particular personal significance for the aged painter is suggested by the reappearance of Titian in the guise of St. Jerome in the Pietà, a work that Titian left unfinished in his studio at the time of his death in 1576, which was presumably originally intended to accompany a tomb for himself and his family at the altar of the Crucifix in the Frari. While representing himself as the semi-naked Jerome, on his knees gazing intensely not at a crucifix but at the actual body of the crucified Savior, Titian is also expressing his hope for salvation in a spirit of downtrodden humility and sorrowful penitence. This message is reinforced by the presence of our celebrated penitent Mary Magdalene, as she grieves wildly with her outstretched hand, and by the votive panel upon which are represented Titian and his son Orazio kneeling in prayer before a vision of the dead Christ. It is not surprising that Titian would have included another penitent Magdalene in one of his final paintings, seeing that the Hermitage version was also found in Titian's studio at the time of this death.
There remains something particularly poignant then about the present panel, with the landscape in an almost non finito fashion, in which figures of the once most robust and sensuous of painters have only half-materialized from the flickering, chromatic haze that envelops them, to express a religious emotion that is all the more powerful and profound for having become internalized to some degree and at once made mysterious. It may be said that any artist on the brink of their final years was indeed at a period of decay, however, on the contrary, the years following 1550 mark the culmination as Titian's greatest years as an artist, distinguished by a heretofore unparalleled freedom and breadth of handling and richness of atmosphere.
The present Magdalene belongs to these years, where his method of painting through the build-up of mass and form through color made itself known, which when looked into at close quarters seem to resolve themselves into a chaos of pigments, with every stroke put in with an unerring sense of the total effect at some distance. It may be that the failing eyesight of the aged master had something to do with his adoption of this style of painting; but it is a style which has an absolutely independent raison d'être and needs no explanations or apologies of any kind. Above all, this style reminds us of the energy and speed with which Titian painted that informed all of his work. Lodovico Dolce's account of the discomfort that the apprentice Titian caused in the workshop of Gentile Bellini because he drew so boldy and with such great facility ("disegnava gagliardamente e con molta prestezza") further exemplifies the underpinning in Titian's oeuvre, and the present Magdalene especially.15
1 See Humfrey literature, which lists the versions he considers as by "Titian and/or his assistants," including: Hermitage (inv. 117; cat. 255, p. 328); Palazzo Pitti (inv. 76; cat. 111, p. 162); Naples, Galleria Nazionale (inv. 136); Italian private collection (cat. 190, p. 256); Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie; Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum; Tokyo private collection (our present painting now in an important US collection).
2 "Looking sad and afraid/ marked by consternation in her face/ where one can read her sadness/ a mourning, which surely touches the heart." See J. H.W. Unger, "Vondel's handschriften" in Oud Holland, II, 1884, p. 115.
3 Humphrey (op. cit., p. 162) doubts that the Pitti panel was painted for Vittoria Colonna as being inappropriate (see footnote 4), and suggests that Titian made it for Francesco Maria della Rovere, a known patron of the artist at this moment.
4 A famous anecdote relates that when asked about the raciness of the picture, Titian jokingly responded that in fact he had painted the Magdalene just after her repentance, so that she was still attractive.
5 See Rothe, op. cit. p. 39.
6 H. E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian: I. The Religious Paintings, Aberdeen 1969, p. 149, cat. no. 129.
7 There are changes visible to the naked eye here and there, For example, the contour to the right of the Magdalene's sleeve appears to have been changed, and there is another.
8 See for example the Portrait of Giulia della Rovere, also on panel (Pitti, Florence; 113.5 by 88 cm.).
9 Titian was clearly aware of Leonardo prototypes when he painted the Pitti Magdalene, however, as has been remarked up; Pedrocco suggests a relationship with the depictions of the saint produced by one of the Florentine's lesser Milanese followers Giampetrino (see Titian, New York, 2000, p. 156).
10 J. Burckhardt, Die Cicerone, Stuttgart, 1955, p. 917, as translated in B. Aikema, "Titian's Mary Magdalen in the Palazzo Pitti: Ambiguous Painting and Its Critics," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 57 (1994), p. 49.
11 J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle, The Life and Times of Titian, London, 1881, vol. 1, p. 350.
12 H. Tietze, Tizian. Leben und Werk, Vienna, 1936, p. 159, as taken from the translation in B. Aikema, 1994.
13 D. Rosand, Titian, New York, 1978, p. 106.
14 G. Vasari, Lives of the Artists, trans. by G. Bull, vol. 1, p. 459.
15 L. Dolce, Dialogo della pittura intitolato l'Aretino (1557), in Trattati d'arte del Cinquecento, ed. Paolo Barocchi, vol. 1, Bari 1960, p. 201.