Titian’s Altarpieces: Colorito, innovation and invention

The unique qualities in Venetian painting of the Renaissance are due to the focus on colorito, or color. The Venetian painter’s interest in the way light and shadow could be used to mimic form, and their controlled use of color, by layering and glazing paint, is championed by Lodovico Dolce, an Italian theorist of painting, as being superior to the Florentine style with its emphasis on disegno or drawing. Titian was a master of painting and colorito; his influence on Western art is enormous and far reaching. Through careful examination of Titian’s altarpiece paintings, it is possible to glimpse not only the unusual, yet inherently Venetian, way Titian approached painting, but also the decisions that led to the final artworks and to his unique contributions to Renaissance painting. Read the rest of this entry »


October 19th, 2008

Titian self portrait

What is essential in Venetian painting and how it came about.

In order to trace Titan’s innovation, I will first look at Venetian painting in general. Extraordinary, brilliant use color is a hallmark of Venetian painting. Perhaps the early painters got their inspiration from the mosaics of San Marco. Figures composed of hundreds of tiny glass tesserae adorn the basilica; reflected light and the polished glow of gold infuse the atmosphere. Patricia Fortini Brown suggests, in Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, that “The chromatic approach to color of Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and other Venetian artists had its antecedents here” (28) in San Marco’s mosaic work. Many Venetian painters and artisans worked on restoration projects; Titian is among these. Read the rest of this entry »

Click to enlarge image Triple Portrait of Charles I Kehinde Wiley, 2007 Oil and enamel on three canvases

Wiley’s large-scale figurative paintings, which are illuminated with a barrage of baroque or rococo decorative patterns, posit young black men, fashioned in urban attire, within the field of power reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo and Titian.

I cut and pasted the information below from the National Portrait Gallery’s website, link at the end. If you have time, I would encourage you to go see these paintings. They are amazing! I really enjoyed the exhibit. The poetry by Nikki Giovanni and installation by Shinique Smith is also good. It’s not up for much longer… if you can’t get there, you need to check out the images online.

Arist’s Statement: Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of African American men collate modern culture with the influence of Old Masters. Incorporating a range of vernaculars culled from art historical references, Wiley’s work melds a fluid concept of modern culture, ranging from French Rococo to today’s urban landscape. By collapsing history and style into a unique contemporary vision, Wiley interrogates the notion of master painter, “making it at once critical and complicit.” Vividly colorful and often adorned with ornate gilded frames, Wiley’s large-scale figurative paintings, which are illuminated with a barrage of baroque or rococo decorative patterns, posit young black men, fashioned in urban attire, within the field of power reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo and Titian.

For “RECOGNIZE!” Wiley has included paintings from his body of work, Hip Hop Honors, depicting some of the foot soldiers of the hip hop movement. The artists chose poses—taken from Wiley’s personal art book collection—that best suited the performative and personal aspects of their character. The coalition of the anonymous subject with the allure of personality allows this body of work to engage celebrity and status directly.

Value, in all its meanings, has always played a role in culture. Unlike its precursors—classical, jazz, rock—which have since been canonized and given an art-historical time frame and construct, hip hop continues to be seen merely as entertainment; a cultural hindrance. This series of Wiley’s portraits speaks specifically to that juxtaposition and the retooling of importance and to whom and when it is deemed.


The Saint Sebastian on the left is from Titian’s Madonna and Child with Six Saints altarpiece. The one on the right is from his Averoldi altarpiece.

Hood and Hope, in Titian’s Vatican Altarpiece and the Pictures Underneath (1977), suggest that Francesco, Titian’s brother, painted the Sebastian on the left which would account for the very different portrayals of the saint. Rosand, in his 1994 article Titian’s Saint Sebastians, does not mention that possibility.

I do not speak or read Italian, but if you do, please leave a comment with your translation of the following:

“As the friars learned through confession, women “nel guardario avevano peccato per la leggiadra e lasciva imitazione del vivo datagli dalla virtu di Fra Bartolomeo”, (p 29).

I gather from this that women were not thinking uplifting, religious thoughts as they contemplated the classic, nude, well articulated version. Perhaps this led Titian to alter the portrayal of his later Saint Sebastians and even the woodcut? It is an interesting possibility.

San Niccolo, or Madonna and Child with Six Saints, 1533-1535

Averoldi altarpiece, 1519-1522 (I would have to find out when exactly the S Sebastian was placed in the painting)

Woodcuts, I have conflicting sources, one says the woodcut was a pre-drawing for the altarpiece, one says it came after. I will research this further.

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.