Scholars have long debated whether this is a late work by Giorgione or an early work by his young colleague, Titian. In 1509 the two were working together in Venice and their styles – full of earthy colours and dreamlike atmosphere – are often difficult to tell apart. When Giorgione died of the plague in 1510, Titian took over all of his commissions. However, nothing is known of the circumstances of the creation of this painting, only that it was first listed in the 18th century in the collections of Louis XIV as a Giorgione. The Giorgione-Titian debate commenced when the painting entered the Louvre collections in the 19th century and has never ceased, though today the majority opinion considers it a work of the young Titian.
Regardless of authorship, the painting remains one of the most intriguing in art history. No one interpretation has ever been established for this enigmatic scene. Two men, one dressed in the rich attire of a Venetian aristocrat and playing a lute, the other rustically dressed with bare feet, sit in a bucolic landscape bathed in late afternoon light. The men look at one another but their faces are in shadows and they seem oblivious to the presence of two beautiful women, both nude except for a sensually draped diaphanous cloth, like ancient goddesses. One sits next to the men holding a flute, while the other stands, in a complicated contrapposto position as she pours water into a font. In the distance a shepherd and his flock walk through a wood. It is an odd grouping that seems to include Venetian aristocracy, nymphs and shepherds. No one speaks but they all inhabit the same floating world.
The painting is held together compositionally by the soft light that suffuses the entire scene and the figures are enveloped in a romantic aura of pastoral antiquity. But what does it all mean? No one knows for certain as no specific literary source has been found to explain the scene. Some have called it an allegory of Poetry, whose symbols, the flute and pouring water, are held by the two women. Do these women – perhaps allegorical figures – exist only in the minds of the two musicians whom they inspire?
The landscape is clearly more than just décor; it seems to express a mood or an ideal. An important innovation of Venetian art of this period was the poesia – a painting meant to function in the indirect manner of poetry. Could this picture be a poetic evocation of Arcadia, where man and nature live in harmony? Perhaps inspired by Virgil’s Eclogues, in which he tells of the happy life of music and song enjoyed by the shepherds in Arcadia.
Regardless of its exact source, this work has been highly influential; Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe of 1863 was a homage to this masterpiece by the 22-year-old Titian.
Here Titian already displays the unique touch that would make him the most celebrated artist of his time. His unrivalled sense of colour is evident in the expressive hues that are repeated in the landscape and figures. The brushwork, both liberal and subtle, is masterful. Titian’s figures are moulded with fullness, volume and fine nuance, creating an exceptionally sensuous surface. The result is harmonious and exquisitely beautiful.
Titian would go on to become the official painter to the Venetian Republic in 1516 and court artist to Emperor Charles V in the 1530s. He enjoyed unprecedented imperial favour, even being knighted by the emperor. A legend says that Charles V once picked up a brush for Titian, to which the artist responded, ‘Sire, I am not worthy of such a servant’. The emperor replied, ‘Titian is worthy to be served by Caesar’.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
c1505–10 Hieronymus Bosch: Triptych of St Anthony, Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
1510 Albrecht Altdorfer: Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Berlin, Staatliche Museen