Reviewing Titian: Love, Desire, Death at the National Gallery

Last week, I was lucky enough to go to the National Gallery to visit their exhibition about Titian: Love, Desire, Death. This is a rather special exhibition as it is the first time in nearly 500 years that one of the most important groups of High Renaissance paintings have been gathered together in the same room. 

Each of the paintings on show are part of a coherent group of six works Titian called ‘poesie’ because he considered them to be visual equivalents of poetry. The set of works were commissioned in 1551 by Prince Philip of Spain, the future King Philip II. Each painting’s subject depicts a classical myth pulled from one of the Roman poet Ovid’s stories in his defining work, The Metamorphoses. The exhibition reunites all six paintings, which include ‘Diana and Callisto’ (1556-9) ,’Rape of Europa', (1560–2), ‘Danaë’ (about 1551–3), ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1554), ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (1556–9), ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ (probably 1554–6) and ‘Death of Actaeon’ (about 1559-75).

The paintings are all very striking. Titian isn’t simply representing the stories told by Ovid, but rather bringing them to life. The works are full of vivid colours, convincing textures and effortless movement. They show off his later style, characterised by a looser and freer handling of paint. Seeing the paintings together really brings out their uniqueness and highlights their function as a cohesive whole. Titian’s ability to represent raw and true emotion through his art is also a distinct feature of the “poesie”. I found this particularly evident in 'Diana and Callisto' (1556-9) and 'Perseus and Andromeda’ (1554-6). He manages to bring these classic myths to life in a way that is unique and a true testament to his artistry. In this case, the exhibition’s name is wisely chosen, as the collection of paintings strikingly evoke love, death and desire. 

My personal favourite painting on display at the exhibition is ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (1556-9). In this myth, Acteon, a hunter, has stumbled across the sacred pool of Diana, goddess of the hunt, which no man is allowed to do. As punishment, Diana turns him into a stag and the hunter gets eaten by his own hounds. In this painting, Titian takes the observer right at the centre of the action, when Acteon sees Diana and Diana realises that she has been seen by him. Matthias Wivel, exhibition curator at the National gallery discusses this in reference to the “power of seeing and being seen” and how the painting is about “the gaze”. Titian not only shows us Acteon seeing the sacred pool, the goddess and her nymphs but they see him too and each woman has a different reaction to what has just happened. Diana, wearing her signature crescent moon tiara, is shown as a definitive and authoritative leader, and it is apparent by her expression that Acteon’s fate has been sealed. In addition, the painting, much like all of Titian’s “poesie”, is full of movement, action and energy. 

Overall, the exhibition is fascinating. It is short, but it is also a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these six paintings displayed in a single room, as they were created to be. So, if you’re curious about Renaissance art or classical mythology, I strongly recommend it. 

Tickets are £10 for students and the exhibition will run until the 17th of January 2021.