Titian: Love, Desire, Death – a rare chance to see Titian’s epic mythological paintings reunited for the first time in over 400 years. The six narrative paintings – referencing stories from classical mythology – were painted by Titian between 1551 and 1562. The artist had been given free rein to depict any subject he liked by his generous and sympathetic patron, King Philip II of Spain. It’s a joy to see them all in the same space, seen by daylight at the National Gallery in London.

Stepping into the exhibition of Titian’s mythological paintings, known as the poesie, is an immersive experience.   You are surrounded by the full series of paintings which Titian painted, as a mature and successful artist in his 60s, which depict dramatic moments drawn from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Clearly Titian was inspired by big human emotions – love, loss, lust, distrust, betrayal, shock, angst and revenge.

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Danae (about 1551-3) Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London

He’d been given a the freedom to create the series based on any subject he chose by his generous and wealthy patron, King Philip II of Spain.  The six major works were supposed to be shown in one of the royal palaces but their time as a set was very brief. This is a rare opportunity to see them all in one place, as the artist and patron had intended.

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Venus and Adonis about 1553-4 Museo Nacional del Prado

The paintings have been specially reframed by the National Gallery’s workshop. They are are displayed only in daylight, as had been Titian’s intention.  It’s interesting to see the vivid colours on show – bright blues, and lively pinks – which have benefitted from restoration but some of the colours have faded over time. Apparently Titian used a pigment called smalt, a blue colour which was cheaper than ultramarine – and has degraded on some of the works.

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The Rape of Europa 1559-62 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The show offers us a chance to review a magnificent collection which demonstrates the very assured work of a mature artist at the peak of his powers. You can stand and stare for a long time and see beyond the narrative and the composition into the psychology and expressive detail of each painting.

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I loved seeing the expressions of the secondary characters – nymphs and cherubs, hand-maidens and servants – and also the animals – eager hounds, fantastical sea monsters and that cool and brutal bull (Jupiter in disguise) who abducts Europa. It’s all riveting stuff and a rare chance to view which is not to be missed.

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Death of Actaeon 1556 – 9 National Gallery

The show is on at London’s National Gallery until 14th June before it moves to the Scottish National Gallery (11July – 27 September), the Prado, Madrid (20 October – 10 January 2021) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (11 February – 9 May 2021)

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