“Why does sexual obsession so suit the medium of painting? Why does paint make lust eloquent?”
This tricky question was posed by John Berger, art critic and host of the superb BBC series Ways of Seeing. In attempting to answer the question, Berger singled out Titian as someone who intuitively understood that when a paint hue is based on the natural pigmentation of human beings, it triggers our biological reflexes and our sexual imagination.
The woman in Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (c.1555) oozes with desirability. It’s not the nudity, it’s the paint. Color can be very sensual.
The woman is looking over her shoulder, acknowledging her reflection in the mirror by placing her left hand on the middle of her chest. Does she feel attractive? How important is feeling attractive to female sexual desire?
Two cupids attend to her because she is Venus, the mythological goddess of love and beauty. One cupid holds a mirror, while the other reaches to crown her with a garland of myrtle. To create the woman’s pose, Titian added the impression of movement to an ancient statue he admired in the Medici collection. But his Venus isn’t cold, like stone. He put so much red pigment in his flesh tones, we sense the blood flowing through her veins.
Titian liked to say a good artist needs only three paint colors — black, white, and red. He was exaggerating, but not by much. His penetrating portrait of Pope Paul III almost proves him right.
A tour de force of brushwork hiding in plain sight
Titian painted more than two dozen portraits of Venus, but only this one was completed entirely by his own hand. X-radiographs reveal he painted this picture over an older picture — a portrait of a man and woman standing side by side. The artist rotated the canvas 90 degrees and left the fur coat of the male figure exposed, so he could reconfigure it into the wine-colored robe that wraps around Venus’s hips.
In Titian’s day, this painting was one of a marching band of portraits lined up in his tidy, business-like workshop. Each canvas advertised a popular theme like The Penitent Magdalene — a young woman portrayed fasting in the desert wearing nothing but her long, voluptuously disheveled hair. When asked how a starving woman could be in such robust health, Titian said with a twinkle that perhaps this was the first day of her fast.
Portraying nature and all its cunning
Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) was born in a small mountain town in the Italian Dolomites. As a boy, it’s said he made colors from berry juice and flowers to paint a portrait on the side of a house. No word on how his parents reacted to this escapade, but when Titian was ten years old he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Venice.
He must have had prodigious talent because a few years later he entered the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the most prominent painter in Venice. Bellini’s network included Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco (Giorgione), a former student ten years older than Titian. Giorgione encouraged the lad’s predilection for sensuous pigments and the illusion of movement.
Giorgione was already a cult figure among young aristocrats who considered themselves the intellectual vanguard of Venice. He was the first local painter to be admired because his paintings looked unlike the work of other artists. A fundamental painting in his small catalogue is The Old Woman (c.1508), a portrait that is one of the most startling and engaging images of the Italian Renaissance.
This woman — who may or may not be Giorgione’s mother — has thinning gray hair and weathered skin. She wears a pretty shawl that covers part of her blouse. Age makes her gentle expression hard to read. Is she tired? Sad? Trying to smile?
Like Venus, she places her hand on the middle of her chest, but now the gesture registers differently. Giorgione tucked a piece of paper into her sleeve to send us a reminder: Col Tempo (With Time). Tell me about it.