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Titian, a shining star of sixteenth-century Venetian art, was prolific, well connected, versatile in his subject matter and groundbreaking in his use of oil paint.

Later masters such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Velázquez are just a small sample of those who were influenced by Titian. Today, we are still uncovering more of his story.

In Titian's time, painting in oils was a new medium. Oil allowed Titian to absorb the classical splendour of the gold-and-pink-hued Venice that was his home, and apply those colours onto canvas – another relatively new innovation. He had the talent to make the colours pop in ways that people at the time had never seen before: huge canvases in churches wowed the populace, and his enchanting Mannerist (more on this term later) mythological and religious pieces, with buzzing blues set against warm greens and golden reds, were sought by the wealthy and influential.

His surviving 400 masterpieces remain in private collections and public museums all across the world. They allow us to understand the talent that initially rocked Europe half a millennium ago. Almost 30 of his original works are in UK public art collections. We have picked ten top Titians that plot his versatile genius as a portraitist, and as a peerless painter of religious and mythological subjects.

Portraits

Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo

We're not sure when Titian was born exactly, but it was probably at some point in the 1480s. By 1510, he was already making a name for himself within portraiture. Originally sent to the bustling, wealthy and cosmopolitan Venice as apprentices, Titian and his brother worked under the prestigious Giovanni Bellini.

The sitter of this early portrait has been identified as a member of the Barbarigo family, likely Gerolamo, who would no doubt have had many helpful contacts for the young painter. Titian used the sitter’s turned position to imply a sense of immediacy – a technique that was new and fresh at the time – and the confident pose appears again and again in portraiture over the following centuries. Rembrandt later paid homage to this work, adopting the composition for his Self Portrait at the Age of 34.

Portrait of a Lady ('La Schiavona')

Early in his career, Titian met and worked with the painter Giorgione (1477–1510), who was an important influence on the younger man (this parapet motif featured in both painters' works, for example in Giorgione’s La Vecchia, c.1508–1510). The powerful 'La Schiavona' is framed by strong horizontal and vertical framing of the ledge, and the light cleverly highlights the delicate veil and the flush of the woman’s cheeks, breathing life into the figure.

Giacomo Doria

Giacomo Doria

Giacomo Doria 1530–1535

Titian (c.1488–1576)

Over the next decades of Titian’s life, he continued to make connections with Venice’s rich and powerful. He met with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Bologna in 1530, and painted a life-size portrait of him. In this powerful and brooding portrait of merchant Giacomo Doria, the marble column denotes the sitter’s authority, while Titian shows considerable sensitivity in the expression of the sitter.

Religious subjects

Christ and the Adulteress

Akin to the luminous works of Giorgione, Christ and the Adulteress represents an early religious work by Titian – in fact, until recently this work was attributed to both artists. The composition shows a dynamic line of movement up a sloping ground, with rich blue, golden red, green and silky white artfully contrasting, drawing the line of vision to the ‘adulteress’. The scene illustrates the Biblical passage from the Gospel of John (chapter 8, verse 7), where Jesus says 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone'.

Noli me Tangere

Noli me Tangere

Noli me Tangere about 1514

Titian (c.1488–1576)

This work – innovatively merging landscape and figurative painting – is also a prime example of celebrated Venetian colour: Titian has placed the blues, yellows and reds in harmony, balancing colour as Raphael balanced form. The subtle layering of the oil paints has created a glowing effect. However there is little documentation on what Titian thought of colour theory himself, and the colours we see today must have changed since they were first applied over 500 years ago. We can piece together an idea of Venetian colour from scraps of insight and our own interpretation.

Noli me Tangere – loosely meaning 'don't touch me' – refers to the words spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognised him after his resurrection. Titian's version was painted around 1514, and the coming years represented a period of mastery and maturity for Titian. His large-scale works were displayed in churches in Venice, his talent was praised and, after the deaths of Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini, he was left without rivals.

The Virgin suckling the Infant Christ

Later on in his life, Titian’s style changed radically. He moved away from representing reality directly, and his brushwork loosened and became more expressive, as you can see demonstrated in this work. It is thought that he sometimes used his fingers to blend oils in a subtle and fluid manner. 

Myths and legends

Diana and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon 1556–1559

Titian (c.1488–1576)

Titian’s long and successful career continued to develop, as he continued to make influential connections. In the 1550s, he landed a role as Philip II of Spain’s official painter, and was given the freedom to embark upon a commissioned set of paintings, the mythological subjects of Titian’s own choosing. The artist used the term ‘poesie’ to describe the set, as he considered them a visual poetry – a conversation with the subject. The subjects of the series were drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the painter’s children were all given Roman names: Pompeo, Orazio, Lavinia and Emilia).

The ‘poesie’ included Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, purchased jointly in 2009 by The National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland for an incredible (if controversial) £50 million – the pair of paintings suggest a linear narrative and have never been split up.

Diana and Actaeon depicts a freeze-frame of the moment Actaeon catches a glimpse of the chaste goddess in the nude, and everything goes hideously wrong for the hunter. The composition is almost comic-book-like with its dynamic swoop left to right, from the blundering Actaeon to the angrily blushing Diana, her steely stare framed by the golden sparkles of her headpiece.

Tarquin and Lucretia

Tarquin and Lucretia

Tarquin and Lucretia 1571

Titian (c.1488–1576)

The unnaturalistic colour in this work, as well as the idealisation of the human form, is typical of Mannerist work of the sixteenth century in Italy, which had its beginnings in the style of Michelangelo. Mannerism adopts an unrealistic yet highly intellectualised approach to setting a scene – where positions of a body might accentuate a movement or harmonise with the background. Overall the effect is one of dramatic storytelling.

The brutal act depicted in Tarquin and Lucretia is horrifying yet compositionally beautiful, making the picture very unsettling. It concerns the Roman story of the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin), an event which was said to have led to the overthrow of the Roman kings and the establishment of the Roman Republic. It was a popular subject in Renaissance art.

Titian painted this piece when he was in his 80s. He said it was 'an invention involving greater labour and artifice than anything, perhaps, that I have produced for many years'. Towards the end of his life, the painter’s work had a dark and terrible beauty – see also, for example, Flaying of Marsyas in the Czech National Museum in Kroměříž.

The Death of Actaeon

Carrying on the narrative of Diana and Actaeon, this piece shows the metamorphosis of the hunter into a stag, ripped apart by his own dogs – Diana’s revenge for his earlier intrusion.

Thought to be one of the master’s final works, The Death of Actaeon is possibly unfinished, as it doesn’t show the usual layering techniques of his other works. Yet many agree the work is a complete and triumphant piece, even if Titian hadn’t stopped tinkering with it. Pushing the brushwork to the edge of abstraction, his later style contrasts greatly with the crisp paintwork of his earlier pieces, though the master still demonstrates a refined deliberateness.

Titian impossible?

Portrait of an Unknown Young Cardinal

Portrait of an Unknown Young Cardinal

Portrait of an Unknown Young Cardinal 16th C

Titian (c.1488–1576) (attributed to)

During the last part of his life, Titian worked mainly on his ‘poesie’ series for Philip II and as a portrait painter. His studio kept works for sometimes up to a decade, refining and reworking pieces to suit the master perfectionist. As he was such a famous painter, there were naturally copies and fakes made outside his studio. Also, Titian even finished student-made copies of his earlier pieces, which means that today it can be hard to figure out which ones are legitimately his work.

Titian once said: ‘A good painter needs only three colours: black, white and red.’ The team on BBC Four’s ‘Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’ wonder: could this portrait of a cardinal be made by Titian’s own hand, rather than simply painted in the style of the master? Tune in on 29th August 2018 to discover why this Petworth House portrait might just be an original...

Jade King, Head of Editorial at Art UK

Did you know?
  • Titian is the English version of the artist’s name. He would have been known as Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio, or even da Cadore (referencing Pieve di Cadore, the place of his birth)
  • In 1576 Titian died of a fever, at a time when plague was ravaging Europe. His sole heir Orazio died of the plague very soon after his father, which complicated who would inherit his estate
  • Titian’s redhead models inspired a hair colour some refer to today – ‘Titian’ hair is a red golden-brown. Think early Dana Scully of The X-Files, Nancy Drew or Princess Anna from Frozen