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    Venus with a Mirror


    Venus with a Mirror was certainly one of Titian’s most popular compositions. Some 15 copies and variants are known, made by the master or his assistants. This canvas, though, is by Titian’s hand alone and must have been the first of all the copies to be painted. It remained in the artist’s studio until his death, more than 20 years after he painted it. 

    During the Renaissance the very idea of love was allied with the contemplation of beauty, and the imagery of mirror and reflection was often found in love poetry. In Italy, the theme goes back to Petrarch’s complaint to the mirror, il mio adversario (my rival), which held the face of his beloved Laura. Many artists painted Venus—or their own mortal lovers—admiring a mirrored reflection.


    Why do we think this was the original Venus with a Mirror?

    Other than the fact that this was the version of the painting Titian chose to keep for himself, strong evidence comes from x-ray analysis. The canvas was rotated and reused. The original horizontal image (the canvas rotated here to show the original painting in its correct orientation) depicted a man and a woman in three-quarter-length standing side by side. The lush velvet drapery that now covers Venus’ lap was originally the man’s cloak—it was left untouched when Titian repainted the rest of the canvas. Such clever reuse is a measure of Titian’s inventive genius and could only occur as he was first creating the new composition.

    See Other Paintings of Venus With a Mirror

    But does the shining eye caught in the mirror of Titian’s goddess really look back at itself? It is a bit ambiguous: perhaps instead she has been distracted from her own reflected loveliness, her attention drawn to something or someone outside the frame. It is tempting to understand that person as the artist working in her presence. If Titian “pictured” himself in the composition as the envious lover, it would help explain his long attachment to the work. Of course, Titian was also a busy and astutely businesslike artist and may simply have kept it as a model for copies.

    Two cupids attend Venus. One holds the mirror as the other reaches to crown her with a garland. She adheres closely to the canon of female beauty extolled by Renaissance poets: blond hair, fair skin flushed with pink, red lips and arched brows. For Venus’ pose, Titian ingeniously transformed a well-known ancient statue in the Medici collection, yet this Venus has no trace of marble’s coolness. It vividly conveys the warmth and glow of yielding flesh, the richness of velvet, and the glint of gold embroidery. We sense as much as see the softness of the fur-lined robe as it brushes against her skin and the smooth perfection of her rose-tinted cheek. A cupid’s wing shimmers with iridescence.

    It is the mastery—and the variety—of Titian’s brush that captures this wealth of textures. In Venus’ face small strokes are blended to reproduce her ideal complexion, and a careful line traces brows. But as she draws an arm across her breast, contours are softened to suggest a pliant body giving way under touch. A deep layering of translucent red glazes—unreadable up close—resolves into the folds of dense velvet at a greater distance. In the border, an intricate embroidered pattern is conjured by quick flashes of yellow and white highlights.

    About the Artist

    Titian self-portrait

    Titian, Self-portrait, ca/ 1560.
    oil on canvas, 96 x 75 cm.
    Inv. 163.
    Photo: Joerg P. Anders.
    Photo Credit : bpk, Berlin
    Art Resource, NY
    Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany

    In a career that spanned more than 70 years, Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian in English, was the greatest force in Venetian Renaissance painting. Probably born around 1490 in the town of Cadore in the Italian Alps, Titian moved at an early age—perhaps as young eight or nine years old—to Venice to study art there. After training briefly with a mosaicist, he entered the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the leading painter of his generation. Titian was influenced not only by Bellini’s rich color but by the lyrically elusive pastoral and mythological scenes of fellow Bellini pupil Giorgione.

    By 1510 Titian had established himself as an independent master, and after Bellini’s death was appointed official painter to the Venetian Republic. Following a succession of commissions for the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino, Titian’s fame spread internationally. His patrons included the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III.

    Titian was a master in all genres: he produced dignified and insightful portraits, Madonnas of modesty and charm, playfully joyous mythological pictures, sensuous nudes, and meditative religious works. He took from Bellini a typically Venetian approach to color, his early works often juxtaposing brilliant contrasting hues. After about 1530, the year of his wife’s death, Titian more often worked within a more narrow tonal range, using subtle glazes to create complex nuances of color. During the last 20 years of his life, Titian's handling of paint grew looser, opening up a wider gamut of expressive possibilities. Thin glazes appear along with heavy impasto, each a mark of the artist’s own presence on the canvas.

    Titian died in 1576, as an outbreak of the plague roiled through Venice, but it is not known if he died of the disease. He was buried in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where his dramatic altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin, had been installed nearly 60 years before.

    Petrarch, "Il Mio Adversario In Cui Veder Solete"

    Sonnet XI

    My rival, in whose face you’re wont to view
    Your own bright eyes, which Love and Heav’n adore,
    With beauty not its own delights you more
    Than all that’s fair in mortal guise could do.
    Its counsel, lady, which with cause I rue,
    Compels me from my home so sweet before;
    Unhappy exile! merit gives no pow’r
    To share a station occupied by you.
    But to your glass if I transferr’d could be,
    Not your proud image only should you see,
    Becoming self-enamour’d, to my cost.
    Rightly reflect upon Narcissus’ fate;
    Both his, and yours a like event await:
    Although no soil has worth so choice a flow’r to boast.

    Petrarch Translated: A Selection of His Sonnets and Odes [trans. John Nott]. London, 1808

    More Works from the Collection

    A seated nude woman reaches for and embraces a partially clothed man as he begins to stride away in this horizontal painting. A winged child holds a dove near his face to our left, and two dogs stand to our right of the pair. The woman sits facing away from us, twisting to our right. Her knees are bent with one knee raised as she leans back on her seat and turns to wrap her arms around the man’s chest. Her flushed face looks up toward the man. She has pale skin, and her blond hair is braided and coiled on the back of her head. A sheer white cloth drapes from her left shoulder, along the left side of her body, and over that knee. Her seat is covered with an orchid-pink cloth. The man strides to our right with his shoulders angled in that direction. He turns his head to look at the woman under lowered lids. He has short, curly brown hair, and his pink lips are parted. He wears a steel-blue toga tied in place with a gold band over one shoulder. A horn is tied around his waist with a gold sash. He wears a shin-high, laced sandal on the leg we can see. The arm closer to the woman is held high, that hand gripping a tall staff. He holds the leashes of the two dogs with his other hand, by his side. A pink band is tied around that upper arm. One bronze-brown dog stands facing our right in profile, while the other, closer to us, has a white body and a brown head, which hangs down as it looks to our left. Both dogs have floppy ears, and their mouths are open with their pink tongues hanging out. In the shadows just beyond the woman’s back knee, the winged baby hunches his shoulders while holding the white dove to his cheek. The cherub has short, blond hair, rounded, flushed cheeks, and small white wings. The elbow closer to us rests on a ledge or tree branch. A tree grows up next to the cherub, reaching off the top edge of the painting. A hill rises to our right in the distance, and a rainbow arcs against a pale blue sky screened with parchment-white clouds. A bright white flash in the upper right corner illuminates the trees beneath it.

    Titian and Workshop, Venus and Adonis, c. 1540s/c. 1560-1565, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.84

    In the left half of this horizontal painting, a bare-chested, seated woman, Venus, is tended by three nude women and several child-like, nude, winged putti. All the women and putti have pale, peachy skin. To our right, a statue of a man stands on an ornately carved pedestal on a veranda in front of a distant landscape. Venus sits facing our right and she looks into a rectangular, black-framed mirror she holds up with her left hand. Her blond hair is braided and she has delicate features. A sky-blue cloth wraps around her waist and lap, and covers her legs. One foot rests on the lap of a seated putto, who ties on a sandal. Another putto helps hold up the mirror. A third putto near us, in front of Venus, pulls strings of pearls from a gold box and the fourth, in the lower left corner, lifts a comb and long needle out of a gilded, rectangular box. Two of the women behind Venus tend to her hair and the third holds up and gazes at a teardrop-shaped pearl. A dusky rose-pink curtain falls behind the women and putti. The view opens onto a terrace on the right half of the painting. A gray stone sculpture of a nude man holding up a bunch of grapes with one hand and bracing a tall stick with the other stands facing our left on an ornately carved base. The base is made up of a wide, shallow bowl above a single pedestal foot. In the distance, two people sit against a tall balustrade. The person on the left wears gold-colored armor, a helmet, and holds a long spear. The bearded man to the right appears to be nude as he leans to the side toward his companion, resting his hand and chin along a staff propped on the bench's seat. Trees and mountains in the landscape beyond are painted with brown, deep gray, and forest and sage green. A sliver of white sky along the horizon brightens an otherwise steel-gray sky.

    Annibale Carracci, Venus Adorned by the Graces, 1590/1595, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.9

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