Titian’s Altarpieces

September 26th, 2008

Titian’s innovation in subject matter and painting style is apparent in his altarpiece paintings. Altarpiece paintings gave artists of the Venetian Renaissance the opportunity to experiment and be expressive; Titian took full advantage of this. Through careful examination of the altarpieces it is possible to discover not only the unusual way Titian approached painting, but also the decisions and changes that led to the final artworks. Titian’s approach to composing paintings was unusual, many artists of his time spent a great deal of time on full scale cartoons; Titian (and other Venetians) used charcoal to roughly sketch out the composition directly onto the canvas. I intend to examine Titian’s Assunta (1516-18), Pesaro (1519-26), and Madonna and Child with Saints (1533-35), looking at what drove the some of the innovations he is credited with. There remain questions as to whether or not Titian actually painted some of the elements in his works, why he chose certain compositions, and what was behind his move to a more expressive painting style.

Due to his longevity and productive career, there is a great deal of information and research on Titian. Two articles, David Rosand’s Titian in the Frari, William Hood and Charles Hope’s Titian’s Vatican Altarpiece and the Pictures Underneath, and the Patricia Meilman’s book Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, have been the starting point for my research thus far.

According to biographer Mark Hudson, who plans to publish a book on Titian this year, most artists completely worked their paintings out, then redrew onto the canvas before beginning to paint. Titian on the other hand did very little drawing before beginning a painting. Using charcoal and water, Titian sketched his compositions directly onto the canvas; made many changes as he painted. The existence of a first version of the Vatican Altarpiece (Madonna and Child with Saints) below the final version also indicates that Titian made many changes, sometimes quite substantial, as a painting progressed. The change or addition of the columns in the Madonna di Ca’Pesaro altarpiece is debated; historians do not agree that Titian painted them at all and if he did what his reason for placing them in the composition was. The addition of the massive columns is unique and was not seen again in a painting like this for over a century. The columns do not blend with the architectural features of the altar as one would expect; this too indicates a problem with them.

Titian composed his altarpieces with an understanding of how they would be viewed in their intended location. Titian was very familiar with the Gothic basilica; one contributing factor to the unusual size of the Assunta was the distance of the viewer. Architectural features adjacent to the altar were another consideration. Often, features of the building carried over into the pictorial space, could have an affect on the angle of the composition, and were even adjusted to fit the altarpiece.The Assunta’s bold composition and heroic proportions are in part due to the windows, light and lacy architectural intricacy of the altar and apse.

Investigating the way in which Titian worked out his compositions, the reasons behind the decisions he made, and his creative process in general will all be examined. Research will consist primarily of books and articles, but a personal examination of the altarpieces is planned. Other primary sources will be Titian’s own drawings and woodcuts of his paintings.

Through examination of his drawings, woodcuts and paintings it is possible to understand Titian’s creative process. Unlike the work my many artists of his day, Titian’s paintings evolved as he painted them. He was not only innovative in his painting style, but also in the size, scope and iconography of his altarpieces.

  1. john-paul penman Says:

    very intesting comments about the nature and inspiration of the crreative process. Tiatn technquie, as you desrcibe it, seems modern in its attempts rto work directly with the art work- e.g. american abstract expressionist painters.