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Around the galleries

The youthful genius of Titian

— July 2012

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Titian, The Flight into Egypt, about 1506-7 Oil on canvas 206 x 336 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg,

Susan Grange is impressed by the young Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt at The National Gallery, London

This gem of a small, free exhibition is one not to miss.  Jostling with famous names such as Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Durer plus other works by Titian himself, it is a veritable jewel-box among the capital's summer shows.

Titian's Flight into Egypt, on which the display is centred, has been lent, after 12 years of restoration, from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Thus it is making its first trip outside Russia since the 18th century. Make no mistake about it, it is a big work ­– over 10 feet wide – and fills a whole wall, dominating its surroundings.  A very ambitious, striking and bravura work by a young, upcoming, ambitious youth – the exhibition claims that it was painted when Titian was around 18 years of age although chronology and the early life of artists are frequently notoriously difficult to plot, Titian's case being no exception.

Arriving in Venice from his village in the Dolomites at around the age of ten in 1500, Titian was trained in the workshop of Venice's most celebrated and respected artist, Giovanni Bellini, and rose to be probably the most famous artist in the world by the time of his death in 1576. His precocious talent inspired a competitive spirit as he tried to outdo his teacher and his slightly older contemporary Giorgione, also trained in Bellini's workshop.  The formative influences of his venerable teacher and his workshop companion clearly informed his early work and even at the end of his life he was showing Bellini’s influence in his paintings.

The provenance of The Flight into Egypt is straightforward.  Titian himself told Giorgio Vasari, the author of the indispensable guide to Renaissance artists, Lives of the Artists, that he had painted a picture on this theme for Leonardo Loredan, a Venetian nobleman, which was to hang in his new palace on the Grand Canal in Venice. Vasari's description of the work draws attention to the animals that watch the progress, through the countryside, of Mary, Joseph and the Holy Child: '... he painted many animals, which he portrayed from the life; and they are truly natural and almost alive'.   In 1768 Catherine the Great's agents bought the work from the heirs of the German collector Heinrich von Bruhl, who had bought it directly from the Loredan Palace, and it has remained in Russia since that time. 

In this work Titian has rendered an impressive background with mountains in the distance reminiscent of the Dolomites of his native village.  In the middle ground is a Giorgionesque group of shepherds and in the foreground is the Holy Family, clearly influenced by Bellini, but appearing rather like a procession frozen in time, as yet lacking the depth of expression and technical aplomb of his master’s work.  The animals and birds seem to be dotted around for effect rather than furthering the complete integration of the whole.  Nevertheless it is an impressive and striking tour de force for a young artist.

The curators have gathered around this work a collection of early 16th-century Venetian paintings, with the aim of integrating landscape and religious themes and by so doing have created a stunning gallery of masterworks that illuminate and highlight aspects of this topic.

The exhibition and the accompanying book Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature argue that although Titian is best known for his portraits and mythological and religious works his first great achievement was to refashion the portrayal of nature in his own distinctive style. The way he did this, they argue, was to study the works of Durer, whose naturalistic renditions of landscape, plants and animals caused a sensation in early 16th-century Venice.  Examples of Durer's work are at hand in the exhibition; they are laid out in front of Titian's painting  so viewers can compare and contrast and come to their own conclusions.  In fact, Durer's style of almost scientific observation and meticulously detailed representation doesn't seem to me to be that closeto the bucolic, pastoral depiction of Titian's work.  The curators also cross-reference the rendering of the background and creatures with the dreamy landscapes of Giorgione and the detailed hinterland of many of Bellini's works.  No mention is made of the Frick St Francis (1475–80) Bellini's magisterial work with its myriad details of nature, landscape and animals.  Clearly Titian's teacher was master in this area also.

In the accompanying book – no learned tome with innumerable footnotes but rather a readable medium-sized guide – Antonio Mazzotta provides an excellent introduction to Titian's works. He discusses the artist’s first patrons, his colleagues and contemporaries and plots his journey to maturity. A manageable ‘Further reading’ section provides a way forward for anyone who wants to delve deeper into this fascinating area.

Altogether unmissable.


Susan Grange
Independent art historian

Media credit: Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum / Natalia Antonova, Inessa Regentova

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