As my time as curatorial intern at Dulwich Picture Gallery comes to an end, I am happy to say that my final project has been the most exciting yet. When I was told by the curators in November 2011 that their Titian workshop version of the Venetian Master’s famous Venus and Adonis (the original of which is in the Prado, Madrid) was currently undergoing restoration, I was intrigued to witness the end result. However, I could not have imagined the scope of the project that has emerged as a result of this work’s renewal.
Venus and Adonis is one of the masterpieces from Titian’s celebrated poesie series, commissioned by King Philip II of Spain in the 1550s. The works in the series are based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but Philip II had not specified exactly which incidents from Ovid he wanted Titian to depict, so the artist chose the following himself: Danaë, Venus and Adonis, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto, The Rape of Europa and Perseus and Andromeda.
Titian’s Death of Actaeon was found in his studio upon his death in 1576, and is thought to be an unfinished addition to these six. The Venus and Adonis at Dulwich Picture Gallery, at one stage thought to be a late 17th century copy, has been restored to reveal it as a 16th century workshop version, probably executed under the guidance of the Master himself.
As the past academic year has progressed, it became clear that two of my classmates from the Courtauld, Mardee Goff and Steffi Lenk – interning at the National Gallery and Wallace Collection, respectively – were also involved in projects related to Titian’s poesie. Mardee has been working with Minna Moore Ede – Assistant Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery – on preparations for this summer’s exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. The recent acquisition of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto by the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland means that these two works will remain on public display in Britain. The Metamorphosis exhibition offers the chance to view both of these works alongside the Death of Actaeon for the first time in 200 years.
Steffi has been working with Lucy Davis – Curator of Old Master Pictures at The Wallace Collection – assisting with various curatorial tasks and researching the provenance of their Titian Poesie, Perseus and Andromeda. This painting is one of the Wallace’s most valuable works and is never loaned out.
Steffi, Mardee and I soon recognised that this summer offers a unique opportunity to witness some of Titian’s most influential paintings in one city, for the first time in centuries. We felt that this fact ought to be promoted by our respective institutions, and endeavoured to create an online collaboration drawing attention to the importance of Titian’s poesie in Britain.
Our mentors at each institution were enthusiastic and motivating about the project. As Mardee has said: “The fact that these intuitions are willing to link to one another’s site shows their innovation. While often the connection is drawn between similar museum ventures, rarely, if ever, have institutions gone to such an extent as to encourage a shared audience. Rather than seeing the links as exits from their own online sites they have chosen to embrace a unique opportunity to extend further education to the public.“
The National Gallery is constructing a ‘hub-page’ for the poesie in London this summer. From there, visitors can learn about the Metamorphosis exhibition and will be able to link to Dulwich and Wallace’s websites, to read about their relevant Titian works. The National Gallery is also building a virtual forum to view all of the original poesie paintings at once. Securing image rights from the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the National Gallery will dedicate an entire page to presenting an image of each work accompanied by a description of their stories. There will also be a page devoted to Titian’s innovative interpretation of Venus and Adonis, a workshop version of which also belongs to the National Gallery and is on loan to the British Museum this summer for their exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World.
Titian’s Venus and Adonis was undoubtedly the most successful of his works for the poesie series. Evidence for this lies in the prolific reproduction of the work, both on canvas and in the form of prints and engravings. What makes it so original is Titian’s decision to deviate quite notably from Ovid, even though artists and scholars during the Renaissance would have been as familiar with Metamorphoses as they would the Bible.
Titian follows Ovid’s account of Venus and Adonis being lovers by showing her in a state of undress. However, Ovid describes Venus as a strong and powerful woman, who warns Adonis of the dangers of hunting large game, and subsequently departs from him in her swan-driven chariot. Titian alters this traditional version by positioning the lovers so that it is Adonis who leaves first, with Venus apparently begging him to stay. Titian’s reasons for departing from Ovid in his visual interpretation of Venus and Adonis are still a matter of debate among scholars. Perhaps he was conforming to the gender hierarchies of his day, hoping to please King Philip by imagining Venus as the victim, who stays behind while her male partner asserts authority and makes decisions for himself.
This role reversal has prompted some to argue that Shakespeare’s epic poem Venus and Adonis (1593) may have been inspired by an engraving after Titian’s composition. Shakespeare’s adaptation of the story does depart from Ovid’s in a similar way to Titian’s painting, becoming a comical episode recounting the erotic pursuits of an older woman, Venus, who tries desperately to seduce Adonis, who is much younger than Ovid describes. The revival of erotic love narrative-poems in the late 16th century was undoubtedly an incentive for Shakespeare to produce such a work of his own, but reading his poem and viewing Titian’s painting certainly prompts the question of whether or not Shakespeare may have seen Titian’s Venus and Adonis himself. The British Museum’s exhibition will provide an exciting opportunity to view Titian’s Venus and Adonis in light of Shakespeare’s interpretation.
Titian occupies an important position in the history of art and the establishment of artistic tastes in Britain, which is why we interns from the Courtauld feel that the amalgamation of his works in London deserves such special attention. Several Titians have remained in British ownership since 1798, and have been largely responsible for the enduring enthusiasm for Italian Renaissance art. Furthermore, during the 18th century, several British artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, travelled to Italy where they were inspired and influenced by Titian and made copies of his works. The growing fashion for collecting Italian Old Masters in Britain meant that some of the finest works from the 16th century have made their way into our public collections.
We hope that our work will motivate visitors to see the poesie and workshop versions at the National Gallery, Wallace Collection, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the British Museum during summer 2012. The chance to collaborate with such prestigious institutions as these has been a pleasure and a wonderful learning experience. Seeing Dulwich’s Venus and Adonis come out of restoration and into its magnificent frame to go back on the Gallery walls where it was so prominently displayed in the 19th century was the perfect way to end my internship there.
Currently on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery - Venus and Adonis Unveiled
10 July – 13 January 2013
Celebrate the conservation of Venus and Adonis, a painting produced by Titian’s workshop after the celebrated prototype painted by Titian for Philip II, King of Spain in 1554. The painting has been in storage since the early twentieth century and was in desperate need of restoration, as can be seen from the photograph. The removal of discoloured varnishes and retouchings has revealed the work to be an evocative rendition of an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, centring upon the last meeting of the ill-fated lovers Venus and Adonis. This was the most famous of Titian’s poesies, his series of mythological paintings that he envisaged as visual equivalents to poetry. The Dulwich version stands as an example of early artistic massproduction, providing striking comparison to the Andy Warhol Portfolios exhibition.