Monthly Archives: February 2011

Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting

Last weekend, my friend, Josephine, and I attended the opening of a wonderful new exhibit at the Art Institute of Minneapolis.  Josie has been to Venice not once, but twice, and is going again in March.  Lucky girl!  I have not, so being newly exposed to these colossal, Italian masterpieces was a wonderful new experience…..Well, that’s disingenuous.  It would have been wonderful, even if I’d seen them 100 times.

Artemis and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon by Titian

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon shows the hapless hunter stumbling upon the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, originally Artemis, while she is bathing.  Artemis was a free-roaming, athletic (despite appearances in this painting), virgin goddess.  She can be seen at the right of the painting directing a “bone-chilling” gaze (as I heard it described by an art expert on NPR) at Actaeon from over her arm, while her companions reach for their wraps or fail to notice the intruder.  As punishment, Artemis turned Actaeon into a stag, at which point his own hounds attacked him.  In the background of the painting, one can see the scull of a stag and a deerskin hanging over a branch.  The colors are gorgeous, especially the rose-colored, velvety cloth upon which Diana sits.  This color appears and reappears in Titan’s paintings.  I would like to know more about his palette.

Diana and Callisto

Diana and Callisto

Titian’s Diana and Callisto was painted as a companion piece to Diana and Actaeon. In myth, Callisto was Diana’s favorite companion in the hunt.  One day, Zeus saw her and as was his habit, decided to force the acquaintance.  Callisto became pregnant as a result and in this scene, her condition is uncovered.  Diana banishes her from her presense .  (Now, I know I read somewhere that Artemis was an avenger of wronged women, but when the culprit is one’s own father, apparently justice goes awry.)  In the aftermath of this scene, Calliso was turned into a bear by spitefulness of Hera, Zeus’ wife.  Her son was raised by another, but was named Arcas or Bear in Greek, referring to his mother’s fate.  Poor Callisto was eventually on the verge of being speared when she tried to give her son a motherly bear hug.  Zeus came to her rescue, but instead of turning her back into a beautiful woman, turned her into the Arctophylas or Great Bear Constellation, aka Ursa Major and Big Dipper.

The Birth of Aphrodite

Venus Rising from the Sea

Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea is a simple and elegant subject.  I will make only the observation that Venus is Titian-haired.  The strands she is wringing out have auburn highlights.  So also is the Madonna in the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and an Unidentified Male Saint (surely Joseph).  This is the hair-color for which Titian is famous.  I will only remark that Diana and her girl corps are blond, as are The Venetian Women at their Toilet by Paris Bordone, and Venus in Veronese’ Mars and Venus with Cupid.  The Venetians definitely had a thing for fair hair.

Holy Family with John the Baptist

The Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and an Unidentified Male Saint

There is that beautiful rose color again on the exquisitely painted sleeve.

Mars and Venus

Mars and Venus with Cupid

The scale and drama of the Diana paintings and especially their wonderful colors made a lasting impression on me.  I have to say though that the Veronese was my favorite painting in person.  (Why is Mars wearing a helmet!  Can you think of anything less conducive to amour? I imagine it is because otherwise he’d look just like any other gentleman from Verona.)   I think it’s because of the beauty of Venus’ skin and the delicacy of her features.  I looked for the best images of these paintings among the many art cards and books for sale in the Gift Shop.  None of them can quite convey how lovely that Veronese painting is.  You should just go see it

The little spaniel too was wonderful.  Diana has a little spaniel in Diana and Callisto and one of these little dogs figures in Titian’s Danae (not in the show)  as well.  I like to think it was Titan’s dog.  If not, they must have been ubiquitous as companions to ladies.

Little Spaniel from Titian's Danae

Little Spaniel from Titian's Danae

Little dogs are the perfect defender of the boudoir.  Did you know that on Napolean’s wedding night Josephine’s pug bit him?  Bravo Brutus!

The Salesman and the Farm Wife

This is a diptych I’ve had in the works for a long time, but have just completed.

It’s a humorous nod to the myth of Circe and Odysseus, but featuring a modern pairing.  A traveling salesman is making calls on farms in his territory and meets a bored farm wife.

In the story of Odysseus and Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Book IX, where first Odysseus’ men, then Odysseus himself, become guests of an island enchantress.  Beginning with the words of Eurylochos, who reports to his captain, this is Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the adventure:

“We went, O glorious Odysseus, through the growth as you told us, and found a fine house in the glen.  It was in an open place, and put together from stones, well polished.  Someone, goddess or woman, was singing inside in a clear voice as she went up and down her loom, and they called her, and spoke to her, and at once she opened the shining doors, and came out and invited them in, and all in their innocence entered, only I waited for them outside, for I suspected treachery.  Then the whole lot of them vanished away together, nor did one single one come out, though I sat and watched for a long time….

“So he spoke, and I answered again in turn and said to him:  “Eurylochos, you may stay here eating and drinking, even where you are and beside the hollow black ship; only I shall go.  For there is a strong compulsion upon me.”

So I spoke and started up from the ship and the seahore.  But as I went up through the lonely glens, and was coming near to the great house of Circe, skilled in medicines, there as I came up to the house, Hermes, of the golden staff, met me on my way, in the likeness of a young man with beard new grown, which is the most graceful time of young manhood.  He took me by the hand and spoke to me and named me, saying: “Where are you going, unhappy man, all alone, through the hilltops, ignorant of the land-lay, and your friends are here in Circe’s place, in the shape of pigs and holed up…Do you come here meaning to set them free?  I do not think you will get back yourself, but must stay here with the others.  But see, I will find you a way out of your troubles, and save you.  Here, this is a good medicine, take it, and go into Circe’s house; it will give you power against the day of trouble.  And I will tell you all the malevolent guiles of Circe.  She will make you a potion, and put drugs in the food, but she will not even so be able to enchant you, for this good medicine which I give you now will prevent her.  I will tell you the details of what to do.  As soon as Circe with her long wand strikes you, then drawing from beside your thigh your sharp sword, rush forward against Circe, as if you were raging to kill her, and she will be afraid, and invite you to go to bed with her.  Do not then resist and refuse the bed of the goddess, for so she will set free your companions, and care for you also; but bid her swear the great oath of the blessed gods, that she has no other evil hurt that she is devising against you, so she will not make you weak and unmanned, once you are naked.”

Ah, it was a dangerous world out there for Greek men in the Bronze Age.

The Traveling Salesman, 12×24, Oil on Canvas

The Farm Wife, 12×24, Oil on Canvas