As I have previously mentioned, I love the National Gallery – nothing really beats wandering through their rooms filled with artistic gems that tell the story of art history under one roof. Whether you’re popping in for a ten minute peek when sheltering from the rain or to see a full-blown exhibition, it’s a wonderful place to visit. Often their free exhibition programme is truly outstanding and it was to see one of these that I was there on a rainy afternoon earlier this week.
Now there’s no denying that Titian is an incredible artist and probably the greatest painter of 16th century Venice but this still isn’t my preferred period and consequently I wouldn’t pick him as one of my favourites.
Titian, Noli me Tangere, c. 1511-12. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Currently on display is Titian’s first major commission (described by Vasari as his first masterpiece hence the exhibition’s title); The Flight into Egypt, on loan from the Hermitage Museum, is being shown for its first time out of Russia since 1768. Due to this lack of visibility, it’s been pretty much ignored by scholars but has now been restored, cleaned and given due consideration. This exhibition seeks to explore Titian’s journey in creating his first large-scale landscape (it’s over 10 feet wide), making comparisons with other contemporaneous artists both in subject and composition and showing the influences that shaped him. The painting is shown alongside 28 other relevant works including those by Albrecht Dürer and Titian’s tutor, Giovanni Bellini. The wall panels explain the decision of the various inclusions, looking at his inspirations for different sections of the painting.
Albrecht Dürer, The Vision of St Eustace, c. 1500-02. Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
The holy family’s escape was a popular subject although a work of this scale is unprecedented in Venice at this time. Painted in 1507, when Titian was only 18, The Flight into Egypt is believed to be one of Titian’s earliest compositions, showing off his skill at landscape painting and his unprecedented sensitivity to colour and detail – elements that would later define his career and become known as his part of his signature style.
Titian, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
The exhibition also gives an introductory look at Titian’s Venetian patrons, many of whom are unidentified but appreciated him before he became famous. The Flight was almost definitely commissioned by Andrea Loredan for his new palazzo on the Grand Canal where it hung until the mid-18th century – we know this from frequent descriptions that record its location.
The Flight’s background shows off Titian’s highly accomplished skill as an artist. His gift for landscape stems from his tuition under Bellini and the looser approach of Giorgione, another Bellini pupil. For Titian, landscape was as important as figures and both are afforded equal detail even if his skill set wasn’t quite balanced at this stage. The figures in the foreground are rather stiff and generic; they appear to be superimposed on the scene, frieze-like in their inflexibility. Titian’s Virgin and Child here seem to recall a figure group from a Bellini painting with a comparable pyramidal structure and tilt of heads. A few years later Titian changed direction and broke away from Bellini’s influence but, here, it is evidently visible.
Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Meadow, c. 1495-1500. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Titian hadn’t yet mastered portraits and The Flight doesn’t really enlighten us as to what a great artist he was to become; other works in the exhibition show how quickly he developed.
Although not visibly overloaded, The Flight is filled with everything Titian knew how to do; it’s a smorgasbord of his talent and an advertisement of his capabilities. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Titian was able to bring all these elements together into a great work.
Titian, detail of The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Later this year, the work will be shown in Venice before returning to the Hermitage from where it will never travel again in our lifetimes. Unless you book your tickets and visa to Russia this really is a once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity. The fact that the National Gallery has been honoured with the exhibition of this work shows not just what a great gallery it is but also complements the strength of its own collection.
Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c. 1509. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
The catalogue is an enlightening publication that looks at Titian and landscape, studying the painting to which so much time is being devoted. Although small, the exhibition was actually more substantial than I expected and in a room and a half there is a lot to get your teeth into. This is a rare opportunity to see this early work (masterpiece or not), with a small exhibition of superb quality to accompany it. Don’t waste any time, go to have a closer look.
Titian’s First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt is at The National Gallery until 19th August 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.