Gateway to the Classics: Great Artists: Volume Three by Jennie Ellis Keysor
Great Artists: Volume Three by  Jennie Ellis Keysor

"The range and tendency of Titian's art entitle him to one of the first places among the painters of all times. In fact, very few compare with him in magnificence of conception and in the embodiment of everything lofty, significant and dignified."

"Titian may properly be regarded as the greatest manipulator of paint in regard to color, tone, luminosity, richness, texture, surface, harmony….He carried to its acme that great colorist conception of the Venetian school of which the first masterpieces are due to Bellini, to Carpaccio and, with more fully developed suavity of manner, to Giorgione."
W.M. Rossetti

"I hold Titian to be not a painter,—his creations not art, but his works to be miracles: his portraits make upon me the impression of something divine, and as heaven is the soul's paradise, so God has transfused into Titian's colors the paradise of our bodies."
A Contemporary





A lifetime of three score years and ten is usually considered the fulfillment of God's good design for man. What, then, can we say of the Creator's mercy when the time usually allotted to man is prolonged to a century lacking a year? If we add to this that the increased years were those of strength and productiveness in this man's chosen art, then does not our wonder outrun itself and we exclaim, "Blessed and fortunate man!"

Titian, the man of whom we are about to study, had such a long life filled almost to the very end with the vigor of his best days. It is an interesting and a large task to consider, even in a cursory way, a career of such length covering, as it does, one of the most important epochs in European history. A mere list of the great events which occurred in the century of Titian's life will give emphasis to this last point.

Within the magic round of this century Caxton printed the first book; Columbus discovered America; Magellan circumnavigated the Globe; the League of Cambray was formed to keep Venice in check; Charles V. ran his exciting career, closing it, not in royal apartments amidst the insignia of kingly dignity, but within the sequestered shades of the monastery of Juste; the Netherlands revolted from Spain's tyranny and William of Orange appeared upon the scene, the saviour of his people and one of the most majestic figures in history.

In the very year in which Caxton printed that first book, 1477, in Cadore, a little town in the Friulian Alps, a short distance from Venice, the boy Titian was born; a blessing to his own mountainous section, the glory of Venetian painters and a name for the world's posterity to utter with reverence for the genius that came with him.

It was a wild and weird country upon which the baby boy opened his eyes. There were lofty mountains near at hand beyond which, slightly veiled, rose the peaks of the greater Alps, while just behind lay the picturesque Austrian Tyrol. In addition there are mountain torrents which go to swell the important stream, Pieve, which flows on down to the Adriatic.

A great authority, describing Titian's country, thus speaks of it, "Cadore itself is high, the Castle-bluff, hundreds of feet above the boiling Pieve which washes its base. In contrast with the bare crags which are gray and pale, or dark and black, or radiant with golden light, according as the sun is rising, setting or overcast with storms clouds, the lower ranges look rich in their coats of verdure; and it is hard to convey in any description, the mighty impress of a nature so solemn and so grand, so luxuriant in its vegetation, so bare and rugged in its barrenness, so full of variety in its lines and tints."


Madonna and Child Adored by Angels

Not only was the scenery of Cadore inspiring but there was that in her history that made her sons hold their heads aloft. In early times, in common with other mountain peoples, they had enjoyed almost perfect freedom. A day came, however, when they had to choose between the lordship of the Emperor or that of Venice. They chose the latter and ever after were loyal supporters of their adopted country.

Gregorio, Titian's father, was distinguished as a warrior and as a councilor of Cadore. He had no wealth, but his position in the state was an enviable one. Of Titian's mother we know nothing except her name, Lucia. Besides our artist there were three other children, one son and two daughters. Of Orsa, one of the artist's sisters, we shall hear later for she kept house for him after the death of his wife.

Little is known of Titian's childhood. We may judge from the tumultuous backgrounds of some of his greatest pictures no less than from his yearly visits to Cadore that he loved his native region and was early and deeply impressed with its beauty. As in the case of other noted men and especially of artists, legends have gathered about his name.

One of these, believed perhaps by no one, but always repeated, is this: In his childhood days, the genius for color working in his soul already, he gathered the mountain flowers of his native Cadore and crushing many colored juices from them he painted a Madonna, beautiful, and so permanent that those who visit the artist's birthplace today are shown the picture on the side of his house. I care not if the story be mere fiction, the great artist himself never made a sweeter, more naive picture than the one which you and I can draw in our minds of that dear child, destined for the world's renown, gathering the flowers as he plays among beloved scenes, thus making for himself a color box with which to paint a picture of the great Mother.

If, in stern reality, he never painted this picture to which pilgrimages are yearly made by thousands of people, we know that he was gathering up from every nook and cranny of his home region scenes, colors, forms and atmospheric effects which later, transmuted by the magic of his growing mind, would be poured out to astonish the world. After all, then, there are several grains of truth in this legend which we love to repeat.

At the very early age of nine years the boy was sent to his uncle in Venice, that he might learn the painter's art. We are told that his first teacher was Zuccato, a worker in mosaic, but of this there is no certainty. He later entered Gentile Bellini's studio and there became acquainted with Georgione. The two young men were of the same age and their aspirations and powers were similar, so it was natural that they should become firm friends.

Later they became partners, painting together on important works. Whether as they worked a strife arose because Giorgione could here insert a deeper, more splendid hue or Titian shape for a given space a more dramatic figure, I know not. Tradition says that such a rivalry arose. Our ideals of friendship make us wish that it had not been so and more especially do we wish it when we think how Giorgione, with his wonderful power, was cut off before he had had a third of Titian's long life.

We regret that we cannot follow Titian's career step by step, but even our best authorities seem to leap from the early time when he was sent to Venice, a child to study art, to the years of his young manhood, when he was executing important commissions for this brotherhood and that in the island city.

With the important personages of the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, Titian soon became more or less involved. The princes of the time were great tyrants but they were also great lovers of art. In the midst of their most cunningly constructed schemes of policy they turned aside to demand from painter and sculptor and architect pledges of their genius to glorify the monarch's reign. The real love of art may have been at a minimum in their souls, but their craving to outshine their contemporary princes in material splendor worked well for the artists and for posterity. Let us not, then, judge too harshly if often we find Titian suing with undue humility for some prince's favor. Let us make allowances for the time in which he lived and for the boon of many of his great works that we might otherwise never have had.

In 1507, the Fondaco di Tedeschi, which is the government building used by foreign merchants, was rebuilt. It was an important building on the Grand Canal and its decoration was a matter of much concern. For this important work Titian and Giorgione were employed and here, it is said, the reported rivalry began.

Early in his career Titian painted one of his very greatest pictures, "The Tribute Money,"  now in the Dresden gallery. It represents the well-known incident from the Holy Writ in which a wily Pharisee tries to confound our Lord by inquiring of him regarding the tribute to be paid to Caesar. No ordinary copy can do justice to this fine work in which there is so much to praise. Even Coreggio, the very master in Italy of light and shade, might have been proud of the chiaroscuro here accomplished. The serene face of Christ, as he turns to give his answer to the Pharisee, is in wonderful contrast to that of the crafty inquirer, whose face is wizened and worn with care and sin. This fine contrast extends even to the hands of the two men.


The Tribute Money

It is a mystery how, in these two simple half-length figures, the artist has brought out the difference between holy and sinning manhood. Note, too, the way in which the hair and beards are executed.

When Titian began his work as an artist Durer was in Venice and, in spite of national prejudice, he was making a large place for himself in Italy, the land of artists. His power in working out detail was much admired, especially the delicate way in which he represented hair. It is said that Titian undertook "The Tribute Money"  to answer the challenge that no Italian artist could equal Durer in this matter.


Three Graces

Whether the story is true in every detail is uncertain. That the hair and beards in Titian's picture are wonderfully wrought is evident to any one who studies it. As we have said before, this picture came early from the master's hand, but it stands perhaps his greatest easel picture.

After the League of Cambray was dissolved and those who had formed it were fighting among themselves, Venice regained much that she had lost in her struggle with the united powers, but her intellectual workers, finding no security in her provinces, became scattered. It was at this time that Titian went to Padua and assisted in decorating some palaces in fresco. The work showed plainly enough that fresco was not the line of work for which Titian's genius was fitted.

In 1512, he returned to Venice and set up his workshop on the Grand Canal. The Council of Ten, at the artists' request, had commissioned him to decorate the Council Hall with a great battle piece, "The Battle of Cadore."  At the same time he was granted a patent which made him chief of the Venetian painters and superintendent of the government works. We may say here that, though Titian was glad to get the commission for the battle piece, it was years before it was completed, the government even having to threaten the artist before he fulfilled his contract.

It was a scene in which he ought to have delighted, for it represented his countrymen bravely withstanding the Emperor on his way to be crowned in Rome. He scorned the right of Venice to bar his progress and he determined to open the way by his sword. The Cadorines were the first to resist and they beat his forces with great loss. In the brave army were two kinsmen of Titian's, his brother Francesco and a cousin.

When Titian's picture of the scene was completed it was strong in action and in the portrayal of Cadorine landscape, with its mountains and gorges and rushing streams.

We are now studying an artist to whom all the humanistic studies of the Renaissance were interesting. He loved mythology and allegory and has given us wonderful pictures in both lines to illustrate his liking for such subjects.

Of his allegorical subjects we produce one, "The Three Ages of Man."  This picture seems to tell us one thing, namely, that if Titian had not been a painter he would have been a poet. At one side are two children with a Cupid sporting above them. Flowers bloom at their feet, while the tree against which they partially rest is dead. On the other side the tree lives again in full vigor while beneath it a beautiful young shepherdess teaches her brawny lover to play the flute. In the distance, and between the two groups already described, sits an old man with a skull in one hand while his other hand rests on another.


Three Ages of Man

Perhaps the old man thinks of the hopes of his youth now, alas! bared of all allurements, mere ghastly things, only sad memories of the past. There they all are, Infancy, Youth and Age, telling us in a poet's way how all our lives are three-parted.

We may turn in sorrow from the skull-contemplating old man, but the landscape, with its gentle undulations indicating a far-reaching of life and joy, is full of hope–its fresh verdure, its resting deer and its feeding flocks. From it we feel that man will go on indefinitely enacting this three-parted drama and somehow, we cannot tell what suggests the thought, we likewise feel that it is not in vain that he appears in these roles of infancy, youth and old age.

Some of Titian's greatest portraits belong also to this time. At the court of Terrara he had become acquainted with Ariosto, Italy's greatest romantic poet. This friendship gave us one of Titian's best works, the portrait of the poet. A drawing by Titian of Ariosto was used as a frontispiece for the poet's last edition of his works.

Other subjects, "The Repose in Egypt,""Noli me Tangere,"  belong also to this period. They reveal the artist in an intensely religious mood, for a Venetian painter. They seem touchstones, so to speak, of his genius in representing religious scenes. He was about to make the picture of his life, and that depicting a religious subject, "The Assumption of the Virgin."  It was painted as an altar piece for the Church of the Feari but it is now in the Academy in Venice, in a place for which it was not intended and where it is poorly lighted. Notwithstanding its unfortunate location it is continually calling forth the praises of those who gaze upon its almost superhuman beauty. Before considering the picture let us give a little consideration to the legend which so many great painters have thought it worth while to celebrate by their very best efforts.


Assumption of the Virgin

The legend relates that, after the death of her son, Mary lived in the house of John on Mount Zion. She spent her whole time visiting the places that Jesus had hallowed by his presence while on the earth. One day she felt a strange longing in her heart to go to him. Suddenly an angel appeared before her, clothed with light as with a garment, and bade her prepare for death. Then she rejoiced greatly and prayed that the disciples, now widely scattered, might be about her and that she might be delivered from the darkness of the grave. The angel gave her assurance that everything should be as she wished, and he departed leaving behind him his palm-branch, every leaf of which shed light and sparkled as the light of the morning.


Head of Virgin — Detail from  "Assumption of the Virgin"

Then, in an instant, the apostles were gathered about her and she composed herself for the great change. As they watched by her bed, suddenly there was a great light and a noise like the rushing of a mighty wind and the space about was filled with angels singing glad songs, and the form of the Virgin ascended into heaven leaving the wondering disciples below, giving praise for the glory which they had been allowed to witness.

Such is the legend, beautiful indeed and worthy even of Titian's treatment. The picture expresses the very words of the legend after the appearance of the angelic host, translated to the eyes by charming color and fine form. Words fail to express the ecstatic look on the face of the ascending Mother. There is a depth beyond ecstacy, as of one who shortly is to appear before her Lord. One is quite as helpless to give any adequate notion of that marvelous throng of angels. They entirely surround the rising figure, growing dim and cloudlike in the upper air but not fading away altogether until they have completed the living arch above.

The Father comes to meet the Virgin. He is a wonderful, foreshortened figure. He is accompanied by the angel who bears the woman's crown for her motherhood. Below are the apostles, put in with the bold strokes of an artist working for effective results. They are near at hand, hence their seeming great size, while the Virgin and angels, occupying higher strata of air, are correspondingly smaller.

"Every figure is taking part in the scene, every face reflects the glory of the Eternal. It would seem as if here the Nature-taught soul of the painter had received inspiration from a power beyond even Nature herself and had brought every device both of coloring and of skill to produce this magic effect."

The greatest of Titian's other pictures suffer by comparison with "The Assumption"  but we must not pass them by. "The Entombment,"  now in the Louvre, from which Van Dyck took lessons, so it is expressed, has perhaps even fewer vulnerable points to the critic's eye, but the very nature of the subject must ever prevent its becoming a popular picture.


The Entombment

About 1523, Titian was married. All we know of his wife is that her name was Cecilia, that they had three children, two boys and one girl, and that she died in 1530, leaving the artist quite broken-hearted.

Shortly after her death he acquired the beautiful suburban place known as the Biri Grande. It was in the extreme end of Venice and on the sea and from its beautiful gardens one could look out on the island of Murano. In clear weather, too, the peaks of Titian's native Cadore could be distinctly seen.

His sister Orsa came from his childhood home to look after his house. Some years later she died and Lavinia, his daughter and youngest child, took her place. She was a beautiful young woman and the idol of her father's heart. He has given us her portrait several times under the title of "Titian's Daughter."  In one place she holds aloft a dish of fruit, in another she lifts on high an exquisitely wrought jewel case. Indeed, Lavinia, Titian's daughter, is as well known to readers as any heroine of romance, and accounts indicate that she was as good as she was beautiful.

We search in vain for details of Titian's home life. We know, however, that he entertained lavishly the most renowned men of his time. Here he did not seem to regard expenditure although he was considered at times even over prudent in money matters. A contemporary gives the following description of his beautiful home. "Here before the tables were set out, we spent the time in looking at the lifelike figures in the excellent paintings of which the house was full, and in discussing the real beauty and charm of the garden which was a pleasure and wonder to everyone. It is situated in the extreme part of Venice and from it may be seen the pretty little island of Murano and other beautiful places. This part of the sea, as soon as the sun went down, swarmed with gondolas adorned with beautiful women, and resounded with various harmonies—the music of voices and instruments—till midnight, accompanying our delightful supper which was no less beautiful and well arranged than abundantly provided."

We have previously referred to Titian's intimate relations with many of the princes of the time. He was a familiar figure at the court of Ferrari and an intimate friend of Gonzaga, the cultivated Duke of Mantua and his accomplished wife, Isabella d'Este. Indeed, it was when the Emperor Charles V. was visiting the court of Mantua, in 1532, that he noticed a fine portrait of the Duke by Titian. So delighted was he with it that he determined to have the services of the artist at any cost. From that time Titian was really a member of the Emperor's train. Twice he visited Ausburg in company with the monarch and when Charles went into retirement he took several of Titian's pictures with him.

The artist painted two portraits ordered by the Emperor with so much skill that he was given a title for himself, and his children were made peers of the Empire. These were lofty honors to be showered upon a painter. They pleased him exceedingly but he was not satisfied—he wanted still other privileges for himself and his family. Especially was he anxious to have a benefice (a church with a revenue) bestowed upon his son Pomponio who, I am sorry to say, was a worthless fellow little worthy of such a holy place.

The Emperor and the Pope were often pitted against each other, but at the time that Titian was seeking favor, each wanted something of the other so that an artist could consistently be friendly with both. Paul III. of the noted Farnese family was pope when Titian was particularly anxious for papal patronage. He was a great patron of the arts and it was for him that Michael Angelo painted "The Last Judgment"  in the Sistine chapel. He was greatly pleased with some portraits of his nephews and one of himself which was so realistic that men lifted their hats to it as they passed by. These Titian presented to him.

In this connection we cannot forget a very strangely gifted friend of Titian's. This was Aretino, a low born fellow who had risen to distinction as a hanger-on of courts and as an unprincipled go-between, the tool of deceiving princes. He it was who seemed to know where Titian could most advantageously place a portrait gratuitously, or some other picture. The artist was so anxious for favors that he was quick to take any suggestion from this adroit courtier.

Among other royal patrons the Duke of Urbino sought the services of the great artist. Urbino was careless of expenditure and fond of gathering at his court men of distinction in all the arts. It was under his escort that Titian first went to Rome. Here he met Angelo and other great artists who were working in the Vatican. He studied the art treasures of the imperial city until he could truly say that his work was much-improved after his visit to Rome.

Meanwhile his fellow citizens in Venice were jealous that the artist should expend his energies outside of their home city, and after visiting Florence he returned home to his fine house, his dearly beloved daughter Lavinia and his son Orazio, who had adopted his father's calling and worked in the studio by his side.

Let us turn at this point to some of the artist's later religious pictures. "The Madonna Pesaro"  purports to be a religious picture. It has, however, all the true Venetian characteristics—gorgeousness of detail, rich coloring and golden lighting. It is at the same time a sort of political picture, for Pesaro was a powerful prelate of Venice who was given command of her fleet in one of the Crusades. In this picture he is represented as upholding the banner of the Borgias, one of the most noted families of Italy. He is surrounded by all the members of his family who are giving thanks for the victory that has come to their kinsman. The Madonna is exquisite as she leans to heed their supplications and the cloud effect above, with the two angels upholding a cross, is very beautiful.


The Madonna of the Pesaro

In "St. Peter, Martyr,"  a picture long ago destroyed by fire, we have a grand sympathy expressed between nature and man in his most furious mood. The killing of this just man takes place amidst a landscape which reflects every phase of the awful crime. It is full of memories of Cadore when the air was filled with portents of storm.

"The Presentation in the Temple"  tells in a most pleasing way one of the loveliest of the legends relating to the childhood of Mary. When she was three years old she presented herself in the temple with the daughters of Israel, each bearing a taper. She was placed on the first step of the altar and she ascended alone to the high priest, who received her graciously, and she danced for joy before the altar and her parents and all the people rejoiced with her.


Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple

The crowd that gathered about the steps, the old elf-woman to one side, and the architectural details are realistic Venetian scenes and might possibly have been produced by some other native artist, but that sweet little girl form, as she goes up the steps, as unconscious of the light that irradiates from her brow as of the eyes of the multitude gazing upon her, is Titian's own, a form of pure loveliness and naive sweetness.


The Virgin — Detail from  "Presentation of the Virgin"

"The Supper at Emaus"  he painted later. It was a favorite subject with painters but one which should only be undertaken by a man of the deepest religious feeling. Titian can hardly be classed as such and so his picture falls infinitely short of such a picture as Rembrandt has given us, using the same subject.

Even the long life given to Titian was drawing to a close. To the casual observer he had attained the things he had longed for most, wealth, royal patronage and power in his art. There were, however, many disappointments and bereavements—he was uncertain of his royal revenues; he had been obliged to give up his son Pomponio to his evil ways; his idolized daughter Lavinia had died shortly after her marriage; his friends Sansovino and Aretino were also dead. He stood alone and lonesome in his palace and in his gardens, aged but not infirm, looking for death.

Even to his last years he entertained kings and princes. Perhaps the latest of such royal guests was Henry III. of France to whom Titian showed the unheard of generosity of giving him every picture from his collection of which he asked the price.

Among other things he planned for his own burial. At first he expressed a preference for his town of Cadore, but later, he changed his mind, selecting the Church of the Frari in Venice, where we may now visit his grave.

He planned for death but his vitality seemed unabated and his hand was yet strong and steady to handle the brush he had so glorified.

In 1576, Venice was visited by the plague. All uninvited and robed in garments of darkness this terrible phantom came. She hovered over the palace-lined lagoons and noiselessly fell upon her victims. Princes and peasants, old and young, were gathered within her relentless grasp. The aged painter felt her clammy touch and he gave up the life he had held so long. In the distraction of this plague-stricken time, his palace was looted by robbers even while he yet breathed. In the pest-house yonder lay his son Orazio likewise fatally stricken.

Then they buried the great painter, not secretly at night as a common victim of the plague, but openly with great pomp, as befitted his mighty genius. In the quiet of the Church of the Frari they laid him near his own beautiful picture of the "Pesaro Madonna."

Canova made a design for a monument for Titian's grave, which had heretofore been marked only by these words cut in the stone covering the grave—"Here lies the great Tiziano di Vecelli, rival of Zeuxis and Apelles." By some derangement of plans the design which Canova made served for his own tomb while Titian's waited until the middle of our own century for the completion of the monument which to-day bears his glorious name.

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