Italian Renaissance painter Tiziano Vecelli, better known today as Titian, was the foremost painter of the Venetian School. Throughout his long and illustrious career he was immensely prolific, producing a huge variety of paintings including portraits, landscapes, mythological and Biblical scenes. Over time, his art became increasingly expressive, with a trademark loose brushwork and subtle tonality that was without rival in his day. Among his most prestigious clients were Pope Paul III, King Philip II of Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. We take a look through just a handful of Titian’s most famous paintings, and how his style evolved over the years.
Venus of Urbino, 1538
One of Titian’s most celebrated early masterpieces is his Venus of Urbino, made in around 1534-1538. The young woman painted here is an idealized, mythological beauty, modelled on the character of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Titian also embeds the painting with its own internal storyline – his fictional young model is a young bride to be, who is about to be dressed in preparation for an Italian ritual called “il toccamano”, in which the bride wears formal clothing and touches the groom’s hand to express her approval and consent to marriage.
In the background, a maid has a blue and gold wedding dress draped over her shoulder. Meanwhile, the dog at the foot of the bed symbolizes love and fidelity. While Titian’s model is demure and coy, her overt nudity went on to influence Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, which made a mockery of Titian’s exposed female flesh. Titian’s early style of painting is evident in this artwork, which combines meticulous brushwork with sparkling colors.
Venus and Adonis, 1550s
This brooding, atmospheric painting is one of Titian’s most famous paintings. It is laden with drama, and illustrates the love affair between Venus and Adonis. The young Venus tries to stop her lover from leaving for the hunt, fearing that he will be killed. Unfortunately her prediction came true and Titian alludes to the tragedy of the story by lacing his painting with a tense, fearful atmosphere as bodies twist this way and that, while the young Cupid looks on in terror. In the distance, dark, threatening clouds hover in the direction he is headed, forewarning what is to come. Titian combines vivid passages of lapis lazuli blue and deep red with his increasingly loose brushwork, while the composition remains closely cropped, focusing predominantly on the shallow foreground space.
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Diana and Callisto, 1556-1559
Diana and Callisto is one of a series of six mythological paintings Titian made for Prince Philip, King of Spain from 1556 to 1559. All the subject for the paintings were derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Titian coined the term poesie (poems) to refer to his artworks, which he considered the visual version of a poem. In this artwork, which is one of Titian’s most famous paintings, he tells the story of the nymph Callisto, a supposedly chaste servant to Diana, goddess of the hunt, and the moon. Titian’s lively, dynamic painting conveys the moment when Diana discovers that Callisto has been impregnated by Jupiter – on the left, Callisto lies sprawled across the ground with her pregnant belly on show.
Diana towers over her, firmly pointing with authoritarian command, gesturing to suggest Callisto’s banishment from her entourage. Titian’s painting is awash with rippling light, which plays across the naked skin of the women, and onto the draped fabrics and lush scenery beyond, with increasingly fluid brush marks.
Diana and Actaeon, 1556-1559
Diana and Actaeon also belongs to Titian’s poesie series made for Prince Philip, King of Spain between 1556 and 1559, which portrays stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this painting, Titian documents the interaction between Diana and the unwitting Hunter Actaeon, as he accidentally stumbles across her private bathing quarters. Horrified at being exposed, Diana, on the far right, rushes to cover her body from Actaeon, dressed in yellow, on the left. As the story unfolds after this scene, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag, and he is hunted down by his own dogs, suffering a cruel fate. Once again Titian captures the suspended tension of the moment, with bodies caught mid-action, twisting and turning this way and that to suggest the unfolding terror that is to follow.
The Death of Actaeon, 1559-75
The Death of Actaeon continues the story of the Hunter Actaeon, turned into a stag, and chased down by Diana the goddess of the hunt before being set upon by his own hunting dogs. This painting is more muted, expressive and fluid than Titian’s earlier artworks, demonstrating the organic style of his mature art. Titian made this painting in the last few years of his life, when he was in his mid-80s, and it demonstrates the incredible level of skill and craftsmanship of this great master that he continued to develop well into his later years.