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Titian: Women, Myth & Power Reunites Artist’s Renowned Series Of Mythological Masterpieces

“The Rape of Europa,” 1559-62. Curtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

For the first time in more than four centuries, the epic series of mythological paintings by Titian, one of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance, is reunited in Titian: Women, Myth & Power. The exhibition—jointly organized by The National Gallery, London; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM)—brings together the Gardner’s masterpiece, The Rape of Europa, with its companion paintings from Spain, England, and Scotland. Titian: Women, Myth & Power makes its final, and only US, stop at the ISGM from August 12, 2021, through January 2, 2022.

“We are honored to partner with The National Gallery (London), National Galleries of Scotland, and Museo Nacional del Prado on this historic reunion of Titian masterworks,” says Peggy Fogelman, the ISGM’s Norma Jean Calderwood Director. “One hundred twenty-five years ago, The Rape of Europa became the centerpiece of Isabella’s collection and strengthened her resolve to create a world-class museum. Isabella would be delighted to witness her masterpiece reunited at the Gardner Museum with its partners, as well as the conversation and creativity it still inspires today.”

In 1550, Prince Philip, the future king of Spain and world’s most powerful ruler, commissioned Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), the most famous artist in Europe, to create a group of paintings. Inspired by the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Titian produced six large-scale canvases depicting stories from classical mythology. Calling the pictures “poesie” or “painted poems,” Titian expertly captured moments of intense drama, exploring themes of power, desire, and even death. The paintings, considered Titian’s tour de force, are among the most original visual interpretations of these classical myths, touchstones in European art history, and some of the greatest Renaissance works ever made.

Titian produced the boldly executed paintings in Venice over a decade (from 1551–62) and sent them to Philip (who became King Philip II in 1556), who ultimately displayed them at the Alcazar, his royal palace in Madrid, the world’s political and economic capital. Following Philip’s death and over several centuries, the paintings changed hands, landing in collections throughout Europe and the United States. Today, the works belong to the following institutions: Perseus and Andromeda, The Wallace Collection, UK; Danaë, The Wellington Collection, UK; Venus and Adonis(the only work that remained in Spain), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; and Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, two paintings jointly owned by The National Gallery, London, and National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. However, the sixth and final work in the series, The Rape of Europa, took a different path, ultimately finding its home in America.

At the end of the nineteenth century, determined to acquire a Venetian masterpiece of global significance, Isabella Stewart Gardner, with the assistance of her art advisor, Bernard Berenson, purchased the picture from an English aristocrat, setting a record for the highest price paid for a painting in the United States. Titian: Women, Myth & Power represents the first time that Europa has left the Museum since Isabella acquired it, and the exhibition at the Gardner coincides with the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the work’s arrival in Boston in August 1896. (An animated map, created by The National Gallery and on view at the exhibition’s entrance, illustrates the travels of the six poesie paintings over the course of nearly five hundred years.)

“Titian’s Europa is widely regarded as the most important Renaissance painting in the United States, and we are thrilled to see it return home as part of this unprecedented exhibition,” says Nathaniel Silver, exhibition curator, and William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection at the Gardner.

The Rape of Europa (1559–62), which the artist characterized as the crowning achievement of his poesie series in a letter to Philip II, depicts the legendary founding story of Europe. The painting showcases Titian’s ability to capture raw human emotion depicting Europa at the moment of her abduction, waving a swath of red fabric while clinging to Jupiter, who has transformed himself into a white bull. Two putti armed with bows tumble overhead while another riding a dolphin follows the kidnapped princess to her imminent fate. Painted at the peak of his career, Titian interprets Europa’s entire story, an ancient Roman fable of lust and tragedy, within a single canvas filled with compositional richness.

Titian conceived his series of mythological tales as pendant pairs which is how they will be displayed in the Gardner’s installation on view in the Museum’s Hostetter Gallery. Rape of Europa will be joined by Perseus and Andromeda from London’s Wallace Collection, which has never before lent a work of art to the United States. This is also the first time that Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (National Gallery, London / National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) have left Europe. To further highlight the connections between the six paintings, they will be displayed in identical frames designed and built by the National Gallery Frames Department (under the leadership of Peter Schade)—cut, carved, and gilded based on a sixteenth-century Venetian original. (It is possible to watch a film on that process here.)

Two royal portraits complete Titian: Women, Myth & Power on the final wall of the gallery. Portrait of Philip II (Titian, 1549–50, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), Titian’s greatest patron, seems to hold court over the works he commissioned. This powerful picture of the would-be King, on loan from the Museo Nacional del Prado, was painted by Titian shortly after they first met in Milan in 1548 when Titian was around sixty and the young prince was twenty-one. Hanging next to Philip is a portrait of his wife, Mary I, Queen of England (Antonius Mor and Workshop, 1554) from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s own collection, painted the year of her marriage to Philip.

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