National Gallery of Art Return to Exhibition
Audio Transcript

The Three Philosophers
Audio (2:40 mins., MP3 3.68MB)
Audio Tour©2006 Acoustiguide Inc.

Peter Humfrey: The Three Philosophers by Giorgione has been the object of an enormous amount of debate for many decades. The old idea that it may represent the Three Magi, or Three Wise Men, on the way to Bethlehem has now been discredited. But we still don't know exactly what these three figures represent: Do they perhaps represent different strands of philosophy? Or, are they representatives of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity?

Certainly, there is a very strong effect of poetic mood with the setting sun and the powerful contrasts of light and shade, with the tree trunks boldly silhouetted against the evening landscape.

Earl A. Powell III: The Three Philosophers may also depict the three ages of Man—youth, maturity, and old age. Another, perhaps more interesting, theory is that the painting may recall a famous metaphor devised by the ancient philosopher Plato. He compared man's rise from ignorance to knowledge to the ascent from a dark cave toward the sun. The youngest scholar, on the ground, gazes into the inscrutable shadowy recesses of a rocky bank; the middle-aged scholar, elegantly dressed in red and blue, seems engaged in the here and now; while the oldest philosopher, his eyes dimmed with age, seems to find wisdom within. The contrast between darkness and light was originally more explicit: modern technology reveals that the old philosopher once wore a splendid solar crown.

David Alan Brown: One of the reasons that Giorgione's pictures are so enigmatic is that their subjects are essentially new. Bellini was the great official painter of Venice, but Giorgione worked for a coterie of young aristocrats who were clearly looking for a different type of picture. They may have commissioned altarpieces, but for their own palaces, in the intimate setting of their domestic quarters, they wanted to look at something that was fresh and wonderful and magic and different from the tradition that Bellini represented, and Giorgione turned out to be the ideal artist to satisfy this taste for the new.

Bacchanal of the Andrians
Audio (0:57 mins., MP3 1.32MB)
Audio Tour©2006 Acoustiguide Inc.

Peter Humfrey: This is Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians, which originally formed part of a major cycle of mythological paintings commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara for his private apartments. The title of the picture refers to the inhabitants of the Greek island of Andros, who were particularly favored by the pagan god, Bacchus, when he turned the river running through their island from water into wine. So, all the Andrians have to do all day long is to drink and to dance and to sleep off the effects of their revelries.

Titian's treatment of the subject is appropriately energetic and sensuous, with wine being liberally poured out on the left, a whirl of dancers at the right, and at the bottom right, a highly voluptuous female nude.

Man with a Glove
Audio (2:14 mins., MP3 3.09MB)
Audio Tour©2006 Acoustiguide Inc.

David Alan Brown: Titian briefly experimented with the Giorgionesque manner, but he quickly moved on to approach his subject in a way that reflected his own individual ideals as an artist. This painting of the Man with a Glove from the Louvre tells you more about what the sitter actually looked like, and also more about his social status at the time. It belongs to a group of similar works by Titian, in which young men were depicted dressed mostly in black, wearing white shirts and often grey gloves.

Now, it is interesting that at the same time the writer Baldassare Castiglione was writing a very important manual on courtly behavior called Il Cortegiano or the Book of the Courtier. It was published in Venice in 1528. It corresponds remarkably with this group of pictures by Titian and, in particular, with the Man with the Glove. The young man has a kind of innate nobility—doesn't depend on rich garments or an overlay of sentiment or emotion. He's very much himself, though somewhat withdrawn from the viewer.

The motif of wearing or holding gloves was an invention of the artist, and it serves wonderfully, I think, to capture the easy grace and naturalness which Castiglione advocates in the courtier's deportment.

Titian really set the standard for portraiture of both men and women for later centuries. Rubens or Van Dyck or Velasquez are inconceivable without Titian's example.

Earl A. Powell III: In a few short years, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and their colleagues had reinvented painting in ways that would alter the course of Western art for generations to come.

Virgin and Child ("Gypsy Madonna")
Audio (1:49 mins., MP3 2.53MB)
Audio Tour©2006 Acoustiguide Inc.

Earl A. Powell III: Titian's Virgin and Child from around 1511 is also known as the Gypsy Madonna, a nickname it got in the 19th century because of the Virgin's black hair and almond eyes. The painting pays homage to his teacher Giovanni Bellini. But Peter Humfrey also sees the Titian as a deliberate critique of Bellini's work.

Peter Humfrey: This is a very interesting variation on the kind of Madonna composition that had been practiced by Bellini for the previous half century or more. For example, the figure group is moved from the center to the right and, on the left, we have an uninterrupted view of landscape. Again, as in the Bellini, evoking the Venetian mainland, but here much softer in treatment, much less detailed. And the Virgin is much more fleshy than that of Bellini. We see here a change of physical ideal.

Titian was a very competitive young painter, and so he's clearly taking on Bellini on his own territory, at a time when Bellini is a very old man, and he's borrowing from him, but doing something radically new.

Earl A. Powell III: Like the aging Bellini, Titian revolutionized traditional subjects, introducing new themes and stylistic approaches. Both increasingly chose horizontal formats over traditional vertical compositions to accommodate a growing cast of characters, as well as ever-expanding landscape vistas.

Earl A. Powell III, Director, National Gallery of Art

David Alan Brown, curator of Italian Renaissance painting, National Gallery of Art

Deborah Howard, head of the Department of the History of Art, University of Cambridge

Peter Humfrey, professor at the School of Art History, University of Saint Andrews