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Text by Deanna MacDonald


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Titian: Tarquinius and Lucretia – 1570–76

Vienna, Gemäldergalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste

Vasari, who was not a particular fan of Titian, wrote that his “early [pictures] have been executed with delicacy and great care so that they may be seen from close quarters or from afar; the last ones are coarse and spotty, thrown on the canvas so that only from a distance do they seem complete.” One can only imagine the scorn Vasari would have directed at this very late work by Titian.

The subject is taken from Roman history as told by Ovid and Livy. Titian depicts the moment when the Etruscan prince Sextus Tarquinius threatens to kill Lucretia, the virtuous wife of his friend and kinsman Collatinus, along with her slaves, if she does not have sex with him. He will then tell her husband that he killed her after catching her in flagrante with a slave. Fearing this disgrace, Lucretia surrenders. The next day she tells her father and husband what has happened and kills herself before them.

From the late Middle Ages, Lucretia was considered a model of female chastity and honour and one of the ‘nine heroines’ frequently portrayed in art. Titian depicted various versions of the story and this late work painted in his eighties is a fascinating example of the evolution of a great artist.

Though probably unfinished, it nevertheless embodies Titian’s mature style. In his last years, Titian often painted for his own pleasure, without commissions. He explored the expressive possibilities of colour, abandoning clear lines. He was less interested in presenting reality but rather an impression of it, an approach that both foreshadowed and influenced the art of the next centuries.

Titian builds the composition with pure painterly technique, employing loose brushwork, near monochromatic colour and layered impasto to create a vibrant, emotional atmosphere. There is an immediacy to the action, with the spectator thrust into intimate contact with the figures, as if they had just walked in on the scene. The viewer becomes voyeur, but not in the usual titillating fashion.

The mood is one of sorrow and violence. Even the brushstrokes – streaks of roughly applied colour - suggest aggression. An earlier painting by Titian of Lucretia in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Lucretia and Her Consort, 1515) focuses on Lucretia’s beauty and purity; her long blonde hair is charmingly dishevelled and her smock falls enticingly from her shoulders. But some 55 years later the elderly Titian alters the focus to the tragedy and cruelty of the attack.

Gone is the bright, clear world of luminous landscapes and shining bodies of his earlier paintings, replaced by a colder reality. The viewer can sense the strength of Tarquinius’ grip on Lucretia’s arm and his fist closed around the dagger. His face and body are shadowy, while Lucretia, who seems to slip as she twists her body away, is illuminated like a deer in the headlights. This is an innovative work of deep insight and empathy, as well as technical mastery.

So much for Vasari’s opinion.

Contemporary Works

c1570 Giovanni Battista Moroni: Portrait of a Man (’The Tailor’), London, National Gallery

1573 Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Summer, Paris, Musée du Louvre

c1571–75 Jacapo Tintoretto: Saint Jerome, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Portrait of a Cardinal

el Greco

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Jacopo Tintoretto

Wedding Feast at Cana

Paolo Veronese