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Titian’s gift


Titian, Portrait of a Man (1510)
National Gallery, London

Every once in a while someone paints a masterpiece which is so important that it disrupts the art of the future. Paintings of the Renaissance are obviously great examples of this. It was often a slow process however as few painters had the opportunity to actually see such paintings up close. With the arrival of the Gutenberg press in around 1440 (Wikipedia) the next best thing, prints, would become available and these quickly became important reference points for painters across Europe, as it was now possible to hugely increase the spread of ideas. Dürer especially knew how to use this new medium to his advantage.

Another opportunity for painters to see groundbreaking masterpieces would be during travel or through securing employment at a royal court at home or abroad. For example, the Dutch painter Willem van Aelst (1627-1683) served as court painter to Ferdinando II de’ Medici in Florence, where he would have seen many important works. As a side effect he developed a bit of arrogance in his step, as when he returned to Holland he included fancy marble tables and his Medici medals in his Dutch paintings, signing them as “Guillielmo” (instead of “Willem”) while Dutch painters just painted their flowers on humble wooden planks or stone ledges – much more in tune with the cold northern climate and the sentiment of the Low Countries.

Portrait of a man by Titian
On some occasions, paintings that had shaken the artworld would surface when bought and sold; local painters would then have the chance to see them. One of these masterpieces was Titian’s Portrait of a Man (1510, see above). This painting was sold to Alphonso Lopez, agent to the French Crown during the estate sale of Lucas van Uffelen in Amsterdam during the 1630s. The man in Titian’s portrait is likely Gerolamo Barbarigo, who may have been 30 years old at that time. Gerolamo had many political and literary contacts which would have been useful to Titian. In any case, he painted him as a strong presence enhanced by this fantastic quilted sleeve which projects out of the painting. It is a vey expressive design, showing strength and confidence.

The National Gallery in London writes: “This novel and effective pose was to become highly influential in European portraiture” (National Gallery). The painting worked its magic on painters over the next few centuries and the composition or elements of it were copied and assimilated. Copyright was not a thing until our times, possibly as most people did not have the means to see the original work of art, so there would not be much of a danger of anyone noticing anyway. This was a normal process with many great works of art, and definitely the case with Titian’s Gerolamo.

Indeed, the buzz this painting created is evident in the work of other masters: Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait of about 1640 (National Portrait Gallery, London) and Reynolds’s Self-Portrait of 1775 (Uffizi, Florence). Perhaps the famous example is Rembrandt’s painting “Self Portrait at the Age of 34” (National Gallery, London), painted in a gloomy Amsterdam in 1640. Rembrandt may have seen Titian’s painting at the time it was sold to Alphonso Lopez at that estate sale (Rembrandt’s Light, Dulwich Picture Gallery publication). Art historians have firmly tied Rembrandt’s design to Titian’s painting.


Anthony van Dyck, 1640, National Portrait Gallery, London
Joshua Reynolds, 1775, Uffizi, Florence
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1640, National Gallery, London

Rembrandt’s take
This self portrait by Rembrandt, through its composition, expresses the same confidence and strength as can be seen in the Titian portrait. It is thought that Rembrandt used it to express his own confidence: he had reason to as he had become a successful painter and was on the verge of receiving the commission for his monumental masterpiece The Nightwatch. As the National Gallery writes, Rembrandts painting also had elements of work by Dürer and Raphael from a similar date and it is thought that Rembrandt is showing himself as a Renaissance gentleman, even comparing himself to those great artists and perhaps claiming a higher status. This is something which rich patrons would have liked to see (National Gallery).

Interestingly, the National Gallery also notes that: “The pose may have been popular, but it was uncomfortable. The diarist Samuel Pepys records sitting for Van Dyck: ‘I sit to have it full of shadows and do almost break my neck looking over my shoulders to make the posture for him to work by.’”. But at least you look good, Samuel.

Other Masters
In 17th century Holland, we see an interesting increase in the number of portraits showing people with elbows pointing outwards, which may be seen as an expression of achievement, confidence and perhaps dominance – not such a big leap to the Titian painting of a century before:


Portrait of a man, Frans Hals, 1622
The laughing cavalier, Frans Hals, 1624
Selfportrait, Frans van Mieris, 1667
François de Vicq, Burgomaster of Amsterdam, Gerard ter Borch II, 1670

And so Masters stand on the shoulders of giants – a wonderful process across the centuries.

Further reading and references:
Rembrandt’s Light, Jennifer Scott and Helen Hillyard, Dulwich Picture Gallery publication, 2019.
National Gallery, Titian’s portrait: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/titian-portrait-of-gerolamo-barbarigo
National Gallery, Rembrandt’s self portrait: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-34