The picture has been the subject of debate with regard both to its subject and its authorship. Titian and his Venetian contemporaries painted a large number of pictures representing beautiful young women in a portraitlike format, but it is often unclear whether such pictures are meant to be recognizable portraits of real members of contemporary society or idealized images of anonymous beauties—or, indeed, whether part of their allure lay in the very ambivalence of their status (see also Allegory of Love). Among Titian’s works of his midcareer, the Young Woman of circa 1546 in Naples (Capodimonte) and the Lady with a Fan of circa 1555 in Dresden (Gemäldegalerie) both appear to be portraits since both wear fashionable contemporary dress. Yet the sitter of the so-called Bella of 1536 (Pitti, Florence), who is similarly richly dressed in the height of fashion, was famously described by the picture’s first owner, the duke of Urbino, simply as “the woman in a blue dress”; and the same model becomes even more anonymous—and eroticized—in the various versions of the Bella, in which she is shown in a state of undress, partly draped in a fur cloak (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Hermitage, Saint Petersburg). The present picture has been fancifully identified in the past as a portrait of Titian’s daughter Lavinia, or alternatively as Caterina Cornaro, or as Giulia Gonzaga. While Fern Rusk Shapley rightly rejected these identifications as without foundation, she still implicitly accepted that the picture portrays a particular woman and retained the traditional title of Portrait of a Lady. Yet as she also recognized, the fact that the figure is shown in semiundress, with loose, untied hair and sleeves, and a richly jeweled but obviously informal gown, invites comparison with a number of other compositionally related pictures by Titian and his workshop in which a female figure is shown in fancy dress or undress and holding an attribute-like object. Relevant examples quoted by Shapley include the Young Woman with a Vase (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), the Young Woman in Turkish Dress (John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota), and the Young Woman with a Cat (in 1931 in a private collection in New York); and to these several more examples have been added in a recent survey of the compositional type by Paul Joannides and Rupert Featherstone.
Shapley, following Detlev von Hadeln, considered that such pictures represent portraits of courtesans. As recent studies have shown, however, while Venetian “beautiful woman” pictures may frequently reflect courtesan culture of the period, there is no evidence that real courtesans had themselves portrayed in this way. Rather, such pictures may be interpreted as idealized images of female beauty, designed to appeal to the romantic and erotic longings of a male owner. As pointed out by Philip Rylands with reference to a comparable portrayal by Palma Vecchio of a Woman Holding an Apple (private collection, Paris), the attribute of the fruit carries inevitable connotations of female sexuality, which in the case of the Gallery’s picture are heightened by the figure’s state of undress and her responsive gaze out at the spectator. This is not to exclude the suggestion by Harold Wethey that the apple, together with the garland of flowers in her hair, is also meant to carry some mythological or literary significance. Indeed, her costume and attributes correspond remarkably closely to the figure of one of the Three Graces in the foreground of an 18th-century copy in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, after a lost version of Titian’s Venus Blindfolding Cupid.
Critics have varied greatly in their assessment of the quality of the picture. Wilhelm Suida, Bernard Berenson, Rodolfo Pallucchini, and Francesco Valcanover all accepted it as an autograph work by Titian. But Oskar Fischel assigned it to Titian’s workshop, while Hadeln and Wethey considered it to be a poor imitation of Titian by a later follower. This last judgment is certainly too harsh, especially when the poor condition of the picture is taken into account and when it is compared with the similar, but weaker Titianesque images of women just mentioned. The recent reassertion, in fact, of the autograph status of the present work by Giorgio Tagliaferro, and by Joannides and Featherstone, may be accepted as fully justified.
Although Tagliaferro suggested a dating of the picture to the later 1550s, the slightly earlier dating to circa 1550/1555 suggested by Suida, Pallucchini, and Valcanover is probably more accurate. Indeed, a dating for stylistic reasons to the later 1540s cannot be excluded, especially since, as was pointed out by Joannides and Featherstone, the ultimate prototype of the series was almost certainly Titian’s Portrait of a Lady as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Although this picture is now lost, it is recorded in a copy in the Uffizi, Florence, which is inscribed on the reverse with the date of 1542—a probably accurate record of that of the original. The composition of the Gallery’s picture follows that of the Saint Catherine quite closely, while anonymizing and eroticizing its model, and it is likely that it in turn became the prototype for the series of Belle executed by, or in collaboration with, the workshop. There is good evidence to show that at least one of these pictures, A Young Woman Holding Rose Garlands (Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London), took the Woman Holding an Apple as its starting point, since technical analysis presented by Joannides and Featherstone has shown that the figure’s black overgown was painted over a lighter and looser green garment, exactly as in the Gallery’s picture. At the same time, the authors cautioned against concluding that the picture of the highest quality necessarily preceded all the other variants in the series, since it cannot be excluded that the master might on occasion decide to produce an autograph variant of a design previously realized in collaboration with his assistants.
March 21, 2019