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Titian at the National Gallery

You can experience a bit of La Serenissima at the National Gallery of Art this summer, with Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, an exhibit that opened a couple weeks ago and continues through September 17. Focusing on the first part of the 16th century in Venice, the exhibit combines a few remarkable canvases by Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini, who were venerable elders at this time, with those of one of the major geniuses of Italian art, Titian. The NGA has selected a few of its own best paintings by these three (Bellini and Titian's Feast of the Gods, Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds), lined up with loans of a few extraordinary works from other institutions and collections, and then padded with minor painters to make a beautiful, medium-sized exhibit.

Titian, Pastoral Concert, c. 1510, Musée du Louvre

Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863, Musée d'Orsay
The main reason to see this exhibit is the chance to stand in front of Titian's Pastoral Concert (c. 1510), on loan from the Louvre for its first-ever visit to the United States. It is somewhat unusual for this period in Venetian painting, not particularly bright-colored and on a secular, mythological theme updated to a contemporary scene. Its arrangement of two young musicians -- one a simple shepherd singer and the other a well-dressed professional player -- with their nude muses in a rural setting was the inspiration for Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. That later painting (also shown at right) combined Romantic artists of 19th-century France, including the painter's brother and the sculptor Ferdinand Leenhof, with their naked muse, Manet's favorite model, Victorine Meurand (who also posed for Olympia). As you can imagine, it caused quite a stir. Titian's painting combines the Venetian love of landscape (more and more important in the background of most paintings of this period, an Arcadian love of the bucolic life, even behind sacred subjects) with a mythological statement about the nature of artistic inspiration.

However, there are plenty of beautiful paintings to see, including Bellini's Virgin with the Blessing Child (1510), from the Brera in Milan. Not only is this a tender depiction of the Madonna and Child, but the pastoral background is interesting to examine up close: the ladder leaning against an orchard tree, the shepherd, one person pushing another person up against a tree, what looks like a leopard perched on the stone (ominously resembling a tombstone — Bellini would die six years later) that bears the artist's signature. Giorgione's Three Philosophers (c. 1506, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) and mysterious Sunset Landscape (c. 1507, from the National Gallery in London) are both examples of paintings that were specialized enough when they were made -- what is reality? what is perception? why are we looking at a cave? -- that their meaning now is hard to grasp, making them very rewarding to ponder.

In Titian's Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Dominic and Flora, you can see that Titian's models, whom he acknowledged to be often the courtesans of his time, causing quite a scandal, could become in paint the model of Christian purity or the ideal of Greek mythology. Also not to be missed are the striking close-up portrait of Christ Carrying the Cross (c. 1515), by an unidentified Venetian painter, and Savoldo's Torments of Saint Anthony (c. 1512), almost Bosch-like in its hallucinatory imagery.

For those interested in history, there is a large reproduction of Jacopo de' Barbari's remarkable View of Venice (1500), a massive engraving showing the topography of La Serenissima at the turn of the 16th century. All through July and August, there will be regular lectures and events related to this exhibit. If you get the chance to go, save yourself some time and drop in afterward to a related exhibit in the Ground Floor Galleries, The Poetry of Light: Venetian Drawings from the National Gallery of Art. It is hard to imagine spending too much time looking at images of Venice.


Mark Barry said...

Titian in DC, Veronese at the Frick! This could be a reason to leave Maine.

Charles T. Downey said...

Mark, under no circumstances are you to leave Maine until you have to. Have your own pastoral concert right there, with blueberries.