Titan’s Masterful Suite of Paintings Inspired by Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ Is Being Reunited for the First Time in 300 Years

The paintings haven't been seen together since 1704.

Titian, Rape of Europa (1562). ©Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

A key series of Old Master paintings by Italian Renaissance master Titian will be reunited for the first time in over 300 years for a forthcoming traveling exhibition.

Commissioned by King Philip II of Spain, who gave Titian free reign to chose whatever subject he wanted for the works, the six paintings depict scenes from the the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses.

Titian called the series, painted between 1551 and 1562, his “Poesies,” because he wanted them to be poetry in painted form. All but one of the six will be included in “Titian: Love Desire Death,” which opens at London’s National Gallery next March and will travel to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

“They rank amongst the most significant paintings of the 16th century and the all-time great visual statements on the themes of love and death,” Matthias Wivel, the National Gallery’s curator of 16th-century Italian paintings, told the Guardian.

Titian, <em>Diana and Actaeon</em> (1556–59). ©The National Gallery London/the National Galleries of Scotland.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon (1556–59). © The National Gallery London/the National Galleries of Scotland.

The series was scattered to the winds when the Spanish court began selling off the canvases in 1704. Brought back together, the paintings, with their focus on classical myth, will serve as an important window into the creative vision of one of the greatest artists of all time.

“We really think it will shine a new light on Titian’s techniques, as well as his storytelling,” Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner’s curator, told the Boston Globe.

The National Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery jointly own two “Poesies,” Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto; and the Prado and the Gardner each own another: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Europa, respectively. The fifth, Danaë, comes from the Wellington Collection, at the Apsley House in London. The show will also include the National Gallery’s Death of Actaeon, which was originally meant to be part of the series but wasn’t finished until 1575, and was never delivered to the Spanish king.

Notably absent is Perseus and Andromeda from the Wallace Collection. Even though it’s housed just two miles from the National Gallery, you’ll have to walk 30 minutes across town if you want to see it the same day as the other five.

Titian, <em>Perseus and Andromeda</em> (circa 1554–56). ©The Wallace Collection.

Titian, Perseus and Andromeda (circa 1554–56). ©The Wallace Collection.

Unfortunately, it cannot be loaned under terms set when it was donated to the nation. According to the Evening Standard, those conditions specified that the museum’s holdings “shall be kept together unmixed with other works of art.” (The Globe erroneously reported that the painting is too fragile to travel—the museum’s website entry on the work notes that “the condition of the painting has suffered considerably since the sixteenth century.”)

Isabella Stewart Gardner also left strict instructions that the artwork in the museum would remain on view as it was shown during her lifetime. Fortunately, those guidelines don’t prohibit temporary loans, allowing the Gardner’s Titian, recently restored by the museum’s chief conservator, Gianfranco Pocobene, to go on the year-long tour. (In addition to removing a layer of yellowed varnish, the restoration work revealed that the scene’s reddish skies were done using a blue smalt-based pigment that has changed color over time, leading to the misconception that the painting is set at dusk.)

“Isabella was a real supporter of artists, and supported their vision,” Gardner director Peggy Fogelman told the Globe. “Titian saw these works as a series, an entire piece, and I believe she would support them being seen together.”

“Titian: Love Desire Death” will be on view at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, UK, March 16–June 14, 2020; the National Galleries of Scotland, the Mound, Edinburgh, Scotland, July 6–September 27, 2020; the Museo Nacional del Prado, Paseo del Prado, Madrid, Spain, October 20, 2020–January 10, 2021; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, Boston, Massachusetts, US, February 11–May 9, 2021. 

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