Titian: Perseus and Andromeda (P11)
This February we join the National Gallery in celebrating the artistic achievements of Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian (c.1485/90?–1576), one of the greatest painters of Western Art.
Titian studied in Venice with Giovanni Bellini and then with Giorgione, with whom his early work has often been confused. Venus and Cupid, a painting attributed to this early lyrical phase of Titian’s career, is on view in the 16th Century Gallery on the Ground Floor of the Wallace Collection.
Perseus and Andromeda is the most significant work by Titian in the Wallace Collection. It was part of his most important commission of the 1550s and 1560s: a series of erotic mythological subjects painted c.1550-c.1562 for King Philip II of Spain, known as the poesie. All six paintings depict episodes taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Venus and Adonis and Danaë with Nursemaid (1553-4; Madrid, Prado), Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (1559; Edinburgh, Sutherland loan to the National Gallery of Scotland) and the companion piece to Perseus and Andromeda, The Rape of Europa (1562; Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; a copy in the Reserve Gallery of the Wallace Collection). Perseus and Andromeda was probably painted in 1554-6 and may have been sent to Philip in 1556.
Andromeda is shown chained to a rock; a sacrifice to appease the sea monster, sent by Neptune to punish her mother’s boast that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids. The hero Perseus swoops down to rescue her, his powerful vertiginous descent contrasting vividly with her vulnerable, helpless pose. Titian gives extra poetic resonance to the terrifying scene by including pieces of coral at Andromeda’s feet. These refer to another danger overcome by Perseus: the slaying of the Gorgon Medusa, whose snaky locks petrified into coral on her death. Titian heightens the mood of sexual tension by relegating Andromeda’s parents to the background,concentrating our attention on her naked captive body. X-rays of the painting reveal a tortuous creative process, the artist changing his mind about the composition at several stages: the figure of Andromeda, for example, was originally placed on the right. If you look closely, you can see some of these changes with the naked eye.
It is not clear how Perseus and Andromeda left the Spanish royal collection but it later belonged to Van Dyck, whose Titian-inspired painting, Paris, today hangs alongside it. In 1646 it was bought from Van Dyck’s executors by the 10th Earl of Northumberland and, after belonging to a series of eminent collectors, entered the collection of the 3rd Marquess of Hertford in 1815. By the mid-nineteenth century it had lost its attribution to Titian and was so disregarded that it hung in Sir Richard Wallace’s bathroom. The condition of the painting has suffered greatly since the sixteenth century, although the grandeur of Titian’s original conception remains impressive. One has only to compare the meticulous finish and bright colours of Cima’s Saint Catherine (c.1500; Sixteenth Century Gallery) with the sensual freedom and tonal approach of Perseus and Andromeda to understand how Titian transformed the language of painting at the end of the Renaissance.