Titian, the extraordinary artistic giant whose precocious talent emerged in sixteenth century Venice, did more than any other painter in the history of Western art to change the way that the physical world was translated into paint on canvas.
His revolutionary approach to the technique of painting in oil - relatively new in early sixteenth century Italy - enabled him to reinvent completely the art of picturing reality. By handling rich, luminous colour in a new, expressive way, he created dramatic and psychological depth in his figures which makes them live and breathe on the canvas. A Titian painting not only intoxicates and seduces us in a very sensual way with its ravishing colour and gorgeous textures, it also draws us forcefully into the psychological drama unfolding on the canvas. Like Shakespeare, Titian's work tells us about the human condition just as vitally today as it did in his own time.
Titian, often referred to as "the prince of painters and the painter of princes", was the first Venetian artist to achieve fame throughout Europe in his own lifetime, By the time he died, in his late eighties, after a long and astoundingly prolific career, Titian was one of the richest painters in Italy. During his lifetime he achieved celebrity status, constantly in demand by the rich and powerful of Europe to paint pictures for them that enhanced their prestige, impressed their friends, celebrated their success and also gave them enormous sensual pleasure.
Titian's worldly fame was matched by the deep admiration and respect of his friends, fellow artists and intellectuals. Titian is often described as the "painter's painter" - his use of colour, in particular, has always provided rich inspiration, and he has never been out of fashion artistically.
Born in the late 1480s in the Italian Dolomites, Tiziano Vecellio arrived in Venice at the age of about ten as an apprentice artist, and studied with Giovanni Bellini, the most important Venetian painter, who was starting to realize the possibilities of rich, luminous oil paint. Titian also learnt from Giorgione, who used colour and atmospheric light to create evocative, poetic landscapes. We can see both Bellini and Giorgione's influence in the rich colour and warm, serene light of Titian's 1510 Holy Family with Shepherd. After Bellini's death, in 1516, Titian was awarded the position of official painter to the Venetian Republic. Titian's first major religious commission, the Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece in the Church of the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, established his reputation securely in 1518, after initial public shock at the painting's huge scale and controversially dramatic, realistic figures. By the 1520s, Titian was the most fashionable and admired painter in Northern Italy. He was sought out by the most influential political, religious and aristocratic names in Europe, particularly for his ability to paint sublimely lifelike and psychologically charged portraits. Titian was by all accounts an accomplished social networker, and made the most of the contacts his reputation acquired. The ruling families of neighbouring North Italian states, Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino, commissioned Titian to paint portraits, dramatic mythological scenes and erotic female nudes to decorate their private rooms. The monumental Bacchus and Ariadne was one of these, painted for Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara; the gloriously sensualVenus of Urbino was and enjoyed by Guidobaldo della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino's son. Titian's sensitive, sympathetic 1542 portrait of the eleven year old Ranuccio Farnese, future Duke of Parma, is one of the most poignant images of childhood in history. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, invited Titian not only to portray him but to take part in diplomatic missions - he made him a close personal friend, somewhat to the alarm of his courtiers, who felt it inappropriate that a mere painter should occupy this position. Affairs of state apparently ground to a halt when Titian was painting the Emperor.
Titian visited Rome in 1545-6, where he met Michelangelo and painted perhaps his most penetrating portraits, of Pope Paul III and his family. Titian's last royal patron was Philip II, King of Spain, Charles V's son. Titian painted official family portraits and a series of "poesies", erotically-charged mythological scenes - a kind of painting he virtually invented himself, based on the Classical writer Ovid's Metamorphoses.
An Italian contemporary of Titian, Ludovico Dolce, wrote: "Titian walks alone as the equal of nature, so that each of his figures is alive, moves, its flesh quivering, He has displayed in his works no empty grace, but colours appropriate to their task." How did Titian produce work that was, and is, so visually compelling? By developing a new way of handling oil paint freely and expressively, with a stunningly astute use of colour, Titian was able to suggest the most sensitive subtleties of form and texture, making them almost palpable. Willem de Kooning, the twentieth century Abstract Expressionist painter, said that oil paint must have been invented to depict a woman's flesh. Titian would probably have agreed - look at his Andromeda, in Perseus and Andromeda , painted late in his career when he had full mastery of the medium.Titian made the means of painting important and visible - both the brushwork that communicated his feeling about his subject, and the rough canvas that allowed him to create texture and surface. Titian's biographer Vasari commented that Titian had invented a new form of art "made up of bold strokes and blobs, beautiful and astonishing, because it makes paintings seem alive." In Titian's Ecce Homo,, painted at the end of his life, he uses these "bold strokes and blobs" to show us tragedy, pathos, hypocrisy and the intense drama of the moment.
Titian's success was helped enormously by circumstance. He lived and worked in one of the most exciting, sophisticated and wealthy cities in Europe, a "Renaissance Utopia". Its strategic geographical location and strong, democratic government had made Venice the centre of a successful commercial empire. Trade with the East and Northern Europe brought to the city luxury goods such as rich fabrics, spices and, most importantly for Titian, the best pigments for oil painting - lapis lazuli (ultramarine) from what is present-day Afghanistan; orange and yellow mineral pigments and azurite from Germany. Specialist colour merchants developed uniquely in Venice to provide pigments for the city's painters and glass and dyeing industries. Oil painting became the most important art in Venice - the less stable tempera fresco technique used in Florence and other Italian cities was badly affected by the humid atmosphere of the watery city. Exquisite colour also helped the Venetian painters to show off their civilized, luxurious lifestyle. Titian's painting technique depended on being able to buy pigments of the highest quality; these were available on his doorstep in Venice - his wealthy clientele enabled him to afford them, too.
The Venetians' special affinity for colour differed from the concerns of the Renaissance painters in Florence: for the Florentine artists, good drawing (disegno ), based on a study of antique art, was more important than the sensitive use of colour (colorito ). Debate about the merits of the two approaches raged in sixteenth century Italy. Michelangelo spoke from his Florentine artistic roots when he remarked, when he saw Titian at work on his Danae, that Titian's art would be better if he had learnt to draw well.
Venice, because its exceptionally tolerant government encouraged freedom of expression and liberal thought, attracted a wide range of writers, poets and intellectuals, like Pietro Aretino - Titian's best friend and champion. Aretino was a ruthless social operator in Renaissance Italy, and his letters promoting the excellence of Titian's painting, published and circulated round the courts of Europe, nurtured Titian's career and reputation, bringing the painter all-important contacts with rich and influential patrons. He painted Aretino on numerous occasions - the best-known one, from 1545 (in the Pitti Palace Museum, Florence) was praised by Aretino himself for its "awesome power". Although he travelled widely to fulfil his portrait commissions, Titian kept his studio and home in his beloved Venice, where he lived with his family - he was married twice and had four children, one of whom, Orazio, was his studio assistant until Titian's death. Titian died in 1576, closely followed by Orazio, probably of the plague that decimated the population of Venice that year.
After Titian's death, his paintings and influence were scattered around the continent of Europe, as the art collections of Titian's royal and imperial patrons were broken up in the political turmoil of the late sixteenth century. Many of Titian's paintings went to Spain, the major political power in late sixteenth century Europe. There the great painters of the seventeenth century, Rubens and Velasquez, revered and copied Titian's work. Titian's intense interest in the expressive application of paint and colour can be seen in Rubens' exuberant nude studies and Velazquez' deep feeling for humanity. The English eighteenth century artist Sir Joshua Reynolds became so fascinated by Titian's technique that he bought one of Titian's paintings and scraped it down, layer by layer, to see how the great master had achieved his effects. Cezanne must have been thinking of Titian when he said "Where colour is at its richest, form is at its fullest," and Titian's example of letting colour speak for itself made the development of twentieth century abstract art possible.