On paper, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s show of seven paintings by the Italian Renaissance great Titian might sound a modest affair, but make no mistake: “Titian: Women, Myth & Power” is a not-to-be-missed art event.
It’s “the art event of the year, and possibly the decade” wrote Sebastian Smee in the Washington Post. The Boston Globe was even more effusive, calling it “the exhibit of a lifetime—several, in fact.”
That’s because the show reunites a suite of perhaps Titian’s most famous paintings for the first time since the 16th century. Called Titian’s “Poesie” series—he considered them poetic inventions—the six monumental paintings illustrate myths as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the famous ancient Roman poem.
“These paintings are not just central in Titian’s career, but are transformational in the history of Western painting,” Nathaniel Silver, curator at the Gardner, told Artnet News.
Philip II, the future king of Spain and one of the era’s most significant arts patrons and collectors, commissioned the series when the artist visited him in Augsburg, Germany, over the winter of 1550 and 1551. It was the second and final time the two ever met in person. (A portrait of Philip is the seventh Titian included in the show.)
“Titian paints the ‘Poesie’ in his 60s. He’s at the peak of his accomplishments, and he’s working for his most enlightened and important patron,” Silver said.
“They also track this moment in Titian’s technique where he’s transitioning from a more linear, harder edged contour to a much brushier, almost Impressionistic way of painting,” Silver added. “It’s interesting for Titian, but it’s hugely important in the history of art, because it’s this new way of approaching the human figure with a soft contour—the idea of suggesting form rather than meticulously describing it—that really resonates with the next generation of artists.”
Yet despite the works’ importance, the royal collection began splitting up the set even within Philip’s lifetime, scattering the “Poesie” canvases throughout Europe, and eventually to the U.S. Isabella Stewart Gardner managed to buy one that had passed to the French royal collection and then to England following the revolution.
“Isabella was a pioneer in her time, especially in the field of Renaissance paintings,” Silver said. “She brought many of the first authentic examples of celebrated Renaissance paintings to the U.S.”
“These paintings all have very different histories,” Silver added. “Perseus and Andromeda was at one point owned by Van Dyke, the English painter, the Danae was owned by Napoleon and taken by the Duke of Wellington from Napoleon’s wagon train as Napoleon was retreating.”
Only one remains in Spain, at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Besides the Gardner canvas, and the rest are in the U.K. Two are jointly owned by the National Gallery in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. The others belong to the Wallace Collection and the Wellington Collection, both in London.
“These six paintings are some of the crown jewels of the collections where they are today,” Silver said. “No one ever really thought it would be possible for each institution to part with them at the same time as the others.”
The Gardner is the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, which debuted in London at the National Gallery and traveled to the Prado. A fourth stop at the National Galleries of Scotland had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, which saw the show shutter its inaugural London presentation no less than three times due to lockdown restrictions.
In Boston, the Gardner invited contemporary artists Barbara Kruger and duo Mary Reid Kelly and Patrick Kelley to put their own spin on the classical subject matter that inspired Titian. The museum wanted to acknowledge that Ovid’s myths prominently feature sexual violence against women, and to reconsider these age-old stories from the perspective of women.
Kruger’s Body Language is a banner that hangs from the museum’s façade, featuring a closely cropped detail from Diana and Actaeon, where the hunter Actaeon unwittingly intrudes on the goddess Diana and her nymphs while they are bathing. (She transforms him into a stag and his hounds kill him.)
Kelley and Kelley made a short film, The Rape of Europa, which gives voice to the title character, having her speak in satirical poetry.