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Peter Humfrey, “Italian 15th/16th Century, Titian/Allegory of Love/c. 1520/1540,” Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed February 28, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2019 Version

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In contrast to the man with whom she shares this outdoor scene, the female figure is incongruously naked. Her features seem generalized. Rather than a specific person, she may have been intended to represent an idealized, anonymous lover.

This painting has significant compositional similarities to a Titian painting in the Louvre called Woman with a Mirror (c. 1515). Allegory of Love may have been begun by an artist from Titian’s workshop after the master’s completion of Woman with a Mirror. Examination of the paint layers under the surface shows that the original composition included some details present in the Louvre painting—for example, the man’s left arm was placed higher, presumably to hold a circular mirror above the woman’s left shoulder, and his right hand held the rectangular mirror from the side rather than from below. Such changes suggest that the painter had access to Titian’s designs.

The man’s costume provides clues about the period in which the artist produced this work. The doublet, with its short, pleated skirt, resembles a fashion dating from at least a decade after the Louvre picture; the pleated collar and cuffs of the shirt and the cut of the hair and beard also 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.


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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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;[5] 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.[6] 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,[7] 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)[8] 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.[9] 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.”[10]

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);[11] 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.[12] 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[13]—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.[14] 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;[15] 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.

Peter Humfrey

March 21, 2019


Counts Benacosi, Ferrara;[1] on consignment 1815 with Count Leopoldo Cicognara, Venice; sold 1815 to Charles William Vane, Lord Stewart [1778-1854, later 3rd marquess of Londonderry], but returned 1816 to Cicognara;[2] sold after 1821 to James-Alexandre, comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier [1776-1855], Paris; (Pourtalès-Gorgier sale, Paris, 27 March-4 April 1865, no. 118); purchased by Comte Charles de Pourtalès, Paris. private collection, England;[3] Baron Michele Lazzaroni, Paris and Rome; sold March 1920 to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[4] purchased February 1922 by Henry Goldman [1857-1937], New York, until at least 1933.[5] (Duveen Brothers, Inc.); sold March 1937 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[6] gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Loan Exhibition of Important Early Italian Paintings in the Possession of Notable American Collectors, Duveen Brothers, New York, 1924, no. 33 as by Titian (no. 46, as The Toilet of Venus in illustrated 1926 version of catalogue).
Classics of the Nude: Loan Exhibition, Pollaiuolo to Picasso, for the Benefit of the Lisa Day Nursery, M. Knoedler and Co., New York, 1939, no. 4, repro.
Image and Word, Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Art Gallery, St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, 1989, no. 14.

Technical Summary

The support consists of four pieces of fabric sewn together. The largest piece is in the center, and most of the composition fits onto this piece. One strip of fabric was sewn to the length of the right side, and two shorter pieces of fabric were sewn together with a horizontal seam and then sewn to the left side of the large center piece of fabric. Although all of the fabrics are plain-weave, the center piece is much coarser and looser than the fine-weight additions. The support has been lined, and the tacking margins have been removed. Tack holes and lines of losses indicate that the painting was reduced in size at least once, possibly twice, and later opened up again.

The support was prepared with a light ground, and the original paint appears to have been applied fairly thinly in the flesh areas, with soft modeling and blended brushstrokes. The costumes are painted with more visible brushwork, but apart from in small details, such as the jeweled ring, there is very little impasto. X-radiographs show no trace of Titian’s customarily vigorous undermodeling. However, x-radiographs and infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns[1] reveal several major changes in the composition, which originally much more closely resembled that of Titian’s Woman with a Mirror in the Louvre [fig. 1]. Originally, the man’s left arm was placed higher, presumably to hold a circular mirror above the woman’s left shoulder; traces of the red paint of the earlier sleeve are still visible to the naked eye. The man’s right hand held the rectangular mirror from the side rather than from below. A drapery hung from his right arm, his beard was shorter, and his white collar was wider and simpler in design.

The paint layer is very worn, with numerous scattered losses and discolored retouchings, and is covered with a thick accumulation of discolored varnish. Technical examination has revealed several campaigns of overpainting, the heaviest of which is in the upper right. Two losses below the man’s chin have been repaired with insets. The painting was last treated in 1937 by Stephen Pichetto, who lined and “slightly restored” it.[2]

Peter Humfrey and Joanna Dunn based on the examination report by Jane Tillinghast

March 21, 2019


Cicognara, Leopoldo. Relazione di due quadri di Tiziano Vecelli. Venice, 1816: 3-14.
Ticozzi, Stefano. Vite dei pittori Vecelli di Cadore. Milan, 1817: 52-64.
Catalogue des Tableaux Anciens et Modernes Dessins qui composent les Collections de M. le Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier. Paris, 1865: 43-44, no. 118.
Villot, Frédéric. Notice des tableaux exposés dans les galéries du Musée Impérial du Louvre. Paris, 1869: 289.
Campori, Giuseppe. “Tiziano e gli Estensi.” Nuova Antologia 12 (1874): 614.
Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. Titian, His Life and Times. 2 vols. London, 1877: 1:268-269.
Malamani, Vittorio. Memorie del Conte Leopoldo Cicognara. 2 vols. Venice, 1888: 2:113-114, 125-133.
Venturi, Adolfo. Storia dell’arte italiana. 11 vols. Milan, 1901-1940: 9, part 3(1928):230-234.
Gronau, Georg. Titian. London, 1904: 285.
Gronau, Georg. “Tizians Selbstbildnis in der Berliner Galerie.” Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen 28 (1907): 45.
Justi, Carl. Miscellaneen aus drei Jahrhunderten spanischen Kunstlebens. 2 vols. Berlin, 1908: 2:169.
Ricci, Seymour de. Description raisonnée des peintures du Louvre. Paris, 1913: 163-164.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. “Ein unbekanntes Meisterwerk Tizians.” Belvedere 1 (1922): 91.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The Henry Goldman Collection. New York, 1922: no. 6.
Waldmann, Emil. Tizian. Berlin, 1922: 217-218.
Fischel, Oskar. Tizian: Des Meisters Gemälde. 5th ed. Stuttgart, 1924: 306.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. A Catalogue of Early Italian Paintings Exhibited at the Duveen Galleries, April to May 1924. New York, 1926: n.p., no. 46, repro.
Heinemann, Fritz. Tizian. Munich, 1928: 49-52.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places. Oxford, 1932: 573.
Suida, Wilhelm. Tizian. Zürich and Leipzig, 1933: 30, 158 no. 121a.
Venturi, Lionello. Italian Paintings in America. Translated by Countess Vanden Heuvel and Charles Marriott. 3 vols. New York and Milan, 1933: 3:no. 508.
Dussler, Luitpold. “Tizian-Ausstellung in Venedig.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 4 (1935): 237.
Tietze, Hans. Titian: Paintings and Drawings. Vienna, 1937: 89, 303.
Duveen Brothers. Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941: no. 154, repro., as Alfonso d'Este and Laura Dianti [Presumed] by Titian.
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 197, no. 370, as by Titian.
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 247, repro. 199, as by Titian.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 66, color repro., as by Titian.
Frankfurter, Alfred M. The Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1944: 52, repro.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 102, repro., as by Titian.
Riggs, Arthur Stanley. Titian the Magnificent and the Venice of His Day. New York, 1946: 96.
Tietze, Hans. Titian. The Paintings and Drawings. London, 1950: 402.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Venetian School. 2 vols. London, 1957: 1:192.
Valcanover, Francesco. Tutta la pittura di Tiziano. 2 vols. Milan, 1960: 1:97.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 129.
Tschmelitsch, Günther. Harmonia est Discordia Concors. Vienna, 1966: n.p.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 116, repro.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XV-XVI Century. London, 1968: 189-190, fig. 436.
Pallucchini, Rodolfo. Tiziano. 2 vols. Florence, 1969: 1:246.
Valcanover, Francesco. L’opera completa di Tiziano. Milan, 1969: no. 53.
Wethey, Harold. The Paintings of Titian. 3 vols. London, 1969-1975: 3(1975):212-213.
Zeri, Federico. "Review of Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Italian Schools XV-XVI Century by Fern Rusk Shapley." The Burlington Magazine 111 (1969): 455.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 203, 542, 645.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: 1:498-500; 2:pl. 354.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 399, repro.
Longhi, Roberto. Viatico per cinque secoli di pittura veneziana (1946). Rev. ed. Florence, 1985: 234.
Le Siècle de Titien. L’Âge d’Or de la Peinture à Venise. Exh. cat. Grand Palais, Paris, 1993: 363.
Goffen, Rona. Titian's Women. New Haven and London, 1997: no. 44, repro.
Santore, Cathy. "The Tools of Venus." in Renaissance Studies 11, no. 3. The Society for Renaissance Studies, Oxford University Press, 1997: 184-185, repro. no. 6.
Schäpers, Petra. Die junge Frau bei der Toilette: Ein Bildthema im venezianischen Cinquecento. Frankfurt, 1997: 130-132.
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Joannides, Paul, and Rupert Featherstone. “A Painting by Titian from the Spanish Royal Collection at Apsley House, London.” Hamilton Kerr Institute Bulletin 5 (2014): 73-74.

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