We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting”

It’s worth remembering that Titian’s most famous biographer considered him a failure. In the second edition of The Lives of the Artists, which after 400-plus years remains the essential biographical source on artists of the Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari gives short shrift not only to the celebrated Venetian painter but also to the whole Venetian school. He would probably view the National Gallery of Art’s current survey, “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting,” as a festival celebrating a bunch of slightly naive also-rans with bad ideas. “[D]rawing on paper,” Vasari wrote, “fills the mind with beautiful conceits and teaches the painter to imagine all the objects of nature without always having to keep his subject in front of him, or to conceal under the charm of colors his poor knowledge of how to draw, in the way Venetian painters, such as Giorgione, Palma, Pordenone, and others…have done for years.” In other words, Titian and the rest of those guys from Venice were a bunch of poseurs.

This assessment isn’t likely to trouble the contemporary museumgoer, and not just because of any lack of familiarity with Vasari’s definition of good draftsmanship. The atmospheric lighting, vigorous brushwork, and mobile, ad-hoc construction of Titian’s paintings seem vaguely to prefigure Romanticism—and, by extension, impressionism, modernism, and the rest of it. Indeed, what Vasari hated about Titian is precisely what makes him seem so accessible now. In Titian’s Noli Me Tangere (circa 1514), for example, the figures of Christ and Mary Magdalene seem oddly diminished, placed in the lower half of a lush, disproportionately large landscape. This is no devotional icon—just a picture of two people having a little post-resurrection interaction in a beautiful outdoor setting, thank you very much. There’s something mesmerizing about the pale, nearly naked Christ’s slightly awkward half-turn at the waist as he withdraws from the decidedly earthbound desire that Magdalene shows as she crawls toward him. The solidity of his body is emphasized by the flimsiness of the shroud that somehow clings to it, his straining muscles by the effortless levitation of the cloth. And all around is sea and sky, foliage and architecture. Sure, this painting offers up a biblical story, but it does so with unexpected emphasis on directly observable stuff, and without obvious reference to earlier treatments of the same subject.

Yet to call Titian a naturalist is to miss rather a lot of artifice, and it requires glossing over the strange cross-pollination of genres in his body of work—which was possible only during this particular moment in the history of Venetian art. Yes, “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian” suggests a direct line of descent for a quintessentially Venetian style, one that gained refinement as it passed in a series of orderly steps from teacher to student: Compare a Bellini to a Giorgione; compare a Giorgione to a Titian—there, you’ve got it! But there are plenty of other Venetian artists represented by this show’s 50 or so works who don’t fit that formula—and who make a hash of the idea of a simple progression. Venice’s position midway between East and West, serving as a cosmopolitan hub of commerce between Europe, the Levant, and Asia, naturally provided a whole range of influences and styles for local artists. The National Gallery, whose recent Cézanne and dada shows revised our understandings of those artists through careful geographic contextualization, here falls back on an old, arbitrary trope: the Venetian school, which produced only the kind of light-filled, velvet-stroked paintings that Vasari hated.

For a counterexample, take Lorenzo Lotto. Granted, he shoved off in 1506 for a voyage that kept him away from the city for a good 19 years. But his work displays a distinctly Northern European touch—likely picked up from German master Albrecht Dürer—that surfaces in the art of plenty of other Venetians, too. In Virgin and Child With Saints Ignatius of Antioch and Onophrius (1508), the Madonna sits in the center of the picture, standing out crisply against a black background. From the stark severity of the colors and their attendant white highlights to the grotesquely mannered facial expressions, Lotto’s painting seems to have none of Titian’s trademark ease and fluidity. Ditto for Giovanni Agostino da Lodi’s Adoration of the Shepherds (circa 1505), with its convoluted, disproportionate faces and snaky, obviously unobserved drapery folds. There are traces here of both the severe ornamental pattern-making of Byzantine icons and of the hallucinatory clarity of early Northern oils, but nothing that even remotely forecasts impressionism.

Finally, there’s Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo’s The Torments of Saint Anthony (circa 1512). Like Titian’s Noli Me Tangere, this painting isn’t so concerned with the biblical particulars of Anthony’s story; rather, the religious subject is an occasion to examine two contrasting modes, pitting the cool green pastoralism in the left half of the picture against the fire-lit perversities in the right—all of which appear to be obvious quotations from Hieronymus Bosch’s very un-Venetian, very eccentric Last Judgement of about a decade before.

Though these three paintings seem very different in tone and syntax from Titian, they are no less indicative of the hybridization inherent to Venice at the start of the 16th century. It’s hard to imagine an artist from Florence choosing to paint, say, Giorgione’s Sunset Landscape (“Il Tramonto”) (circa 1507), an ostensibly religious painting in which the actions of Saint Anthony and Saint George, shown in tiny, separate vignettes in opposite halves of the canvas, are scarcely as memorable as either the deepening shadows that enfold them or the bizarre creatures occupying the picture’s margins, once again apparently borrowed from Bosch. It’s impossible now to guess exactly what this picture aims to accomplish: It doesn’t seem suitable as a devotional piece. It’s not really a landscape. It’s not really a grotesque fantasy, either. It’s all of these disparate ideas, jostling uncomfortably together in the service of producing a novel painting.

Success for Vasari came from giving the impression of effortlessness, grace, and unity—as if the image in a painting sprang from the artist’s head fully formed, without second thoughts or struggle. His idols were from Florence, not Venice, and topping that list was Michelangelo, with his sturdy draftsmanship and impossibly coiling male bodies. For Vasari, Michelangelo was perfection in the arts, and that perfection was reached within an essentially sealed system of influence. As Deborah Howard points out in the show’s catalog, “renewing the local tradition through contacts with outsiders was not typical of Florence, where an unbroken series of artistic innovations links Masaccio to Michelangelo.” An unbroken series of artistic innovations? Well, such neat art history is certainly more likely in a city-state that sat on a river rather than on a sea.

Vasari preferred an idealized, constructed beauty, and the dependence of the Venetians on live models irked both him and his hero, Michelangelo. But naturalism is a slippery concept. Giorgione and Titian weren’t simply recording the appearance of the people and things around them. Look at the two painters’ twin erotic portraits in this exhibition. The sitter in Giorgione’s Portrait of a Woman (“Laura”) (1506) is shown in three-quarters profile, staring off to the right with a reserved expression. With her right hand, she pulls aside the man’s fur-trimmed coat she’s wearing to expose her breast. It’s a compelling, slightly idiosyncratic portrayal, complete with a spray of laurel leaves that might be ironic: They usually denoted chastity.

Yet there’s a labored stiffness to the composition, a fussiness that Titian entirely avoids in Flora (circa 1520). The woman in this portrait is thoroughly at rest; her luminous, feathery flesh is gently modeled with impossibly soft shadows. Indeed, Flora is so perfectly seductive as to appear unreal—her face in particular appears very much an invention, a projected ideal. Giorgione’s figure might betray awkwardness, but it’s distinctive and individualized. Titian’s might seem more realistic, but it’s hazy on the details. Of course, we can’t be certain about either: The titles were designated by others after the fact, and both works likely lie in some indistinct middle ground between observation and fantasy.

As for the whole question of drawing, the conservational discoveries in this show offer a glimpse into a creative process that would’ve flummoxed Vasari. X-rays of Virgin and Child (“Gypsy Madonna”) (circa 1511) show that Titian, instead of using the incised, carefully plotted contours Vasari prescribed, started with a loose, broadly brushed sort of sketch. During the process of painting, he made significant changes to the positioning and attitude of the Virgin’s face, hands, and garments, at one point completely covering a hand and starting over. Similarly, in Noli Me Tangere, Christ’s sinuous pose was arrived at through a number of adjustments to an initial, considerably stiffer rendering. Certainly Titian’s masters didn’t work this way: X-rays of Bellini’s Virgin With the Blessing Child (1510) reveal a carefully plotted-out underdrawing showing the crisp crease of every fold of drapery.

This, then, is the Venetian condition: an awareness of many possible pictures. It’s not just Titian’s imitation of life, his closeness to our current ideas of verisimilitude, that makes the artist seem modern. Nor is it simply the loose, expressive blocking and intuitive movement of the brush we might not expect to see until Delacroix hundreds of years later. It’s his willingness to radically repaint and reconfigure his compositions in the middle of the artistic process—his awareness and acceptance of, well, failure. Every picture for Titian seems to be a compromise reached after venturing down any number of blind alleys, taken not before the act of painting, but during it.

Vasari couldn’t allow for failure; he believed in abstracted, classicizing perfection. But the perfection he championed and practiced himself turned into mannerism, an overheated, courtly style that, despite occasional revivals in interest, still tends to be viewed as a sort of involuted degradation. Titian opened his art, allowing seemingly incompatible ideas to coexist and blurring the lines between them. His art, so venerated for its illusionism, defeats all kinds of illusions: It makes us aware of the gulf between the ideal and the individual, between paint and the things it pretends to be, and between the past and the way we choose to remember it.CP