On Feb. 7, 1506, Albrecht Durer wrote home to Nuremberg from Venice. He had been warned, he mentioned, not to eat with Venetian painters, presumably to avoid poisoning since many were his enemies and copied his work.
Durer didn’t specifically mention Titian among those he darkly suspected, but as a small show -- “Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature” at the National Gallery in London -- makes clear, the young Venetian had been taking a hard look at the German’s art.
At its center is one of Titian’s first large-scale paintings, “The Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1506-7), on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and recently cleaned. Around it the National Gallery has assembled an array of pictures by Titian and contemporaries such as Giorgione and partly from its own collection, partly from loans.
The result is a nicely organized introduction to a moment of crucial cultural fusion in Western art. Durer wasn’t the only important figure to stop off in Venice at the start of the 16th century. Leonardo da Vinci was there in 1500, and the effect of his ideas is visible in the row of early Titian portraits that begin the exhibition.
“The Flight Into Egypt” might owe something to Da Vinci’s landscape vision, yet also turns out to be full of details that reflect Durer’s influence, among them a resting deer, an alert fox and a poppy plant. Northern artists were renowned as specialists in these detailed observations of nature.
The Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari went so far as to attribute Titian’s success in this picture -- in part at least -- to the artist keeping “some Germans in his house who were excellent painters of landscape scenery and plants.”
Certainly the dewy naturalism of “The Flight Into Egypt” gives the picture its appeal. The painting is essentially a landscape, and a surprisingly big one (more than 2 meters by 3 meters or about 6 feet by 10 feet) for this early date. The sweep of the woods and hills is delightful, with nestling sheep and figures resting in the shade of the trees. You can see why John Constable was such a Titian fan.
In the distance -- as Antonio Mazzotta points out in the accompanying book (“Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature”) -- loom the Alpine peaks that can be seen from Titian’s boyhood home of Pieve di Cadore. As a whole, however, the painting is bitty, with the main figures of the Holy Family group strung along the front edge in an awkward row.
That unevenness isn’t surprising because when Titian painted it he was no more than 18 or 19 years old. His age at any point is uncertain, a fact that led to a bizarre and inconclusive art historical spat between David Cameron and Gordon Brown in 2009.
Brown remarked that the painter did his best work shortly before dying at 90, Cameron shot back that he died at 86, complaining that the then U.K. prime minister never got his facts right. Actually, Titian’s birth date is unknown, and consequently so is his age at death. Currently, the best guess is that he was born around 1488-90.
If you want to decide whether Brown was correct in his wider point -- that Titian got better with age -- go to Room 1 where the late masterpiece “Diana and Callisto” (1556-9), recently acquired for 45 million pounds ($71 million), is on display until July 1. It makes an extraordinary exercise in comparison and contrast with “The Flight Into Egypt,” painted a half century before, though both feature figures in a richly mellow landscape.
“Titian: A Fresh Look at Nature” is at the National Gallery, London, through Aug. 19. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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