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Pieve di Cadore ca. 1488/90–1576 Venice

Titian has always been regarded as the greatest Venetian painter. His career coincided with a high point of Venetian cultural efflorescence, even at a time when her political influence had begun to decline. After the death of Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516) in 1516, Titian stepped into the latter's place as the doyen of the Venetian school, but after the middle of the century he worked less for Venetian and Italian clients and more for the Spanish Hapsburgs, for whom, always based in his native city, he became a kind of court painter in absentia. He developed a personal relationship with the emperor Charles V, which continued with his son Philip II, making him the first European artist with a truly international reputation.

Titian's early works reflect the lyrical reticence and soft tonalities of his great predecessors Bellini and Giorgione (1478–1510), and his Concert Champêtre in the Louvre is highly Giorgionesque in its enigmatic subject matter and mysterious atmosphere. His first masterwork, the Assumption of the Virgin of 1518, still in situ in the Frari church in Venice, shows a much more dramatic presentation of the event, quite new to Venice, with a glorious burst of colorism. Titian followed up this success with another painting for the Frari, the Pesaro Madonna, a key prototype for the ‘grand manner’ altarpiece from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and with a series of bacchanals for the Duke of Ferrara, notably the Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery, London. These also set an example for European painting down the centuries, as did his female nudes, most famously the Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi, Florence.

After 1550 he embarked on another series of mythologies for Philip II, of which one of the best is the Rape of Europa in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. These show the evolution of his late style, characterized by a much freer handing of paint, and an even more evocative sense of atmosphere. Again, this was to prove immensely influential over time. His late style reaches its apogee in the gruesome Flaying of Marsyas in Kromeriz, Moravia and in his last painting, the transcendental Pietà in the Accademia, Venice.

Titian enjoyed immense success as a portraitist, promoted by his crony the writer Pietro Aretino, who thought Titian portrayed his sitters with unparalleled immediacy. His Portrait of Aretino in the Pitti Palace, Florence was memorably described by the English regency essayist and critic William Hazlitt as “spectral, ghastly, necromantic.” Titian’s portraits are the foundation of a grand style in the genre which influenced painters from Van Dyck (1599–1641) to John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).


Top Auction Results for Titian

A Sacra Conversazione: The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria
Sold for $16,882,500 
New York, Sotheby’s, 27 January 2011, Important Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, lot 156

Venus and Adonis (Titian and Workshop)
Sold for £7,480,000 ($13,602,473) 
London, Christie’s, 13 December 1991, Important and Fine Old Master Pictures, lot 85

The Penitent Magdalene
Sold for $4,521,000
New York, Sotheby’s, 24 January 2008, Important Old Master Paintings Including European Works of Art, lot 117


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