Ever since 1815, when it was discovered by Count Leopoldo Cicognara in the attic of a palace in Ferrara, the picture has attracted controversy with regard both to its attribution and to its subject. Cicognara, a renowned antiquarian and connoisseur, had been commissioned by the Duchess of Sagan to find works by Titian for her, and he was convinced that his discovery was autograph. His friend Stefano Ticozzi agreed, and went on to identify the figures as Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and his mistress (later wife), Laura Dianti, partly on the basis of the Ferrarese provenance, partly on a supposed resemblance of the male figure to known portraits of Alfonso, and partly on the report by Giorgio Vasari that Titian had painted a portrait of Laura. With these credentials, Cicognara sold the picture (together with Titian’s Self-Portrait now in Berlin) to Lord Stewart, British ambassador to the imperial court in Vienna and lover of the Duchess of Sagan. But Stewart was advised by the Milanese dealer Gerli that both pictures were copies, and he accordingly had them sent to Rome to be appraised by the Accademia di San Luca. The academicians pronounced the Self-Portrait to be authentic, but because of the presence of retouching (“alcuni ritocchi”) on the other picture, they were unable to decide between Giorgione and Paris Bordone. Since he was only interested in authentic works by Titian, Stewart insisted on returning the picture to Cicognara, who subsequently sold it to Count Pourtalès-Gorgier in Paris.
In Paris the picture could be compared with the compositionally similar Woman with a Mirror in the Louvre [fig. 1], previously known as La maîtresse de Titien, but which on the basis of Ticozzi’s identification was now also accepted as a double portrait of Alfonso and Laura. By the mid-19th century it was further widely believed that the Washington picture was the earlier, since the nudity of the female figure implied that she was still merely the duke’s mistress, while the Louvre picture, in which the female figure is clothed, was seen as dating from after her marriage.
But a certain skepticism toward both the traditional attribution and the title was already expressed by Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in 1877, and then more emphatically by Carl Justi and Seymour de Ricci; and by the time that the picture came to America around 1922, Ticozzi’s romantically fanciful title was becoming increasingly discredited. Wilhelm R. Valentiner, while still accepting the possibility that the male figure represents a portrait of Alfonso, interpreted the picture rather in terms of mythology and called it the Toilet of Venus. Valentiner continued, however, to support the attribution to Titian and retained an early dating to circa 1518. Subsequent adherents to this view have included Adolfo Venturi, Lionello Venturi, Wilhelm Suida, and Günther Tschmelitsch, and the picture retained its attribution to Titian when it entered the National Gallery of Art in 1939. But postwar 20th-century critics have increasingly tended to see the picture as a later workshop variant of the unquestionably autograph Louvre Woman with a Mirror of circa 1515, and this view has been supported by the emergence of a number of other variants, likewise of less than autograph quality. Two of the best of these (Museo de Artes Decorativas, Barcelona; National Gallery, Prague) show the female figure clothed, as in the Louvre original; but as pointed out by Alessandro Ballarin, another nude version, apparently by a Netherlandish hand and possibly copying another lost variant by Titian, appeared on the London art market in 1971. Fern Rusk Shapley called the Gallery’s picture “Follower of Titian,” disassociating it even from Titian’s workshop, and Harold Wethey downgraded it still further, calling it “Sixteenth-century Venetian School.”
The very poor condition of the painting and the presence of extensive overpaint and discolored varnish make such negative judgments understandable. The generally thin and bland application of the paint, without any of Titian’s characteristically expressive brushwork, certainly argues against his personal involvement in the execution, at least of the upper layers. However, the evidence of extensive pentimenti, and the fact that the original composition was even closer to that of the Louvre Woman with a Mirror, suggests that the executant had access to Titian’s designs, and hence that he was at least a member of Titian’s workshop, and not an independent imitator. The man’s costume is of a fashion dating from at least a decade after the Louvre picture: the doublet, with its short, pleated skirt, resembles that worn by Federico Gonzaga in Titian’s portrait of 1529 (Prado, Madrid); and the pleated collar and cuffs of the shirt, and the cut of the hair and beard, are similarly of a style that did not become fashionable until the mid-1520s. Probably, therefore, the painter adapted Titian’s design, perhaps in the form of an underdrawing begun circa 1515–1520, and completed it at some date in the 1530s. In doing so, he changed the dynamic composition of the underdrawing, in which the man appears to have just arrived, into the more static image of the completed work.
Since the female figure is not accompanied by any of the particular attributes of a mythological deity, there is no good reason to follow Valentiner’s title of the Toilet of Venus, and still less convincing is the identification by Tschmelitsch of the two figures as Venus and Mars. Like its Louvre prototype, the picture clearly belongs rather to a category of erotic painting that hovers ambivalently on the borders of allegory, mythology, and genre, and which is much discussed in current art-historical discourse (see also Woman Holding an Apple and Venus with a Mirror). In the Louvre Woman with a Mirror, Titian achieved a masterly balance between erotic suggestiveness, poetic idealization, and moralizing or philosophical reflection. In the Washington picture, the eroticism has become more blatant—Goffen has rightly drawn attention to the shift in the erotic balance of power between the two figures—and the mirror held by the man has lost any possible reference to the passing of beauty and time and, like the perfume jar on the parapet, has become merely an accoutrement of his beloved’s toilette. With more justification than its Louvre prototype, the picture may be regarded as belonging to the category of “courtesan picture,” of a type practiced in Venice from the 1520s above all by Paris Bordone. Yet the generalization of the features and body of the female figure, and the fact that she is incongruously set not in a boudoir but against a landscape, suggest that she does not represent a particular courtesan, but an ideal mistress; indeed, her anonymity, as in other versions of the composition, remains central to her erotic allure. By contrast, and as in the other versions of the composition, the male figure, with his contemporary clothes and particularized features, is much more portraitlike. Goffen expressed sympathy with the 19th-century tradition that he represents Alfonso d’Este; although there is no substance in this identification, the figure may well represent a portrait of the original owner. Essentially constituting, therefore, a personalized erotic fantasy, the picture may nevertheless retain sufficient allegorical content to justify the present title of an Allegory of Love.
March 21, 2019