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Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, Italian, c. 1488/90–1576), Portrait of a Lady in White, c. 1561. Oil on canvas, 102 x 86 cm. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Elke Estel/ Hans-Peter Klut.

PASADENA, CA.- The Norton Simon Museum announces a special installation of Titian’s Lady in White, c. 1561, on loan this winter from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. This captivating portrait, whose sitter’s identity has eluded scholars for centuries, has been a highlight of Dresden’s art collection for more than 250 years. Its installation at the Norton Simon Museum marks the first time this painting has been on view in Southern California. It hangs in the Museum’s 16th–17th century art wing, near works by the artist’s contemporaries, such as Bellini and Giorgione. 

Says Norton Simon Museum President Walter Timoshuk, “It is a great privilege to include in the Museum’s masterpiece exchange program works from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, an institution long renowned for its exceptional collection. Titian’s Lady in White is one of their most arresting Venetian pictures, and I know that our visitors will enjoy encountering her gaze in our galleries.” 

Adds Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister Director Stephan Koja, “The collection of the Norton Simon Museum is of extraordinary quality, and the setting in this elegant building makes the experience of a visit so memorable. In this regard the Norton Simon Museum is comparable to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, which not only is one of the most famous treasure houses of great European painting but also a Gesamtkunstwerk in its presentation: with the gilded Rococo frames of the pictures and the spectacular building by Gottfried Semper which houses them. We really look forward to the display of one of our paintings in the context of the Norton Simon collection and, in the near future, to the juxtaposition of a masterwork from Pasadena with its contemporaries in Dresden” 

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1488–1576) was born in Pieve de Cadore, a small medieval town just south of the Dolomite Mountains, in between the Austrian border and Venice. As a child, he was sent to Venice to become an artist’s apprentice, eventually working under both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and alongside Giorgione, all of whom greatly influenced his style and technique. Indeed, within a short period of time Titian established himself as a premier painter to the nobility, church and unique oligarchic republic. His distinctive use of color and light made him a much sought-after master painter, draughtsman and printmaker. His reputation spread internationally across Italy to France and Spain, and further to northern Europe, where commissions came from not only elite private collectors but Popes, Princes, Emperors and Kings. 

Titian painted Lady in White in the penultimate decade of his long life. In this sumptuous painting, we see a beguiling young woman, dressed in white satin, bejeweled with gold, precious stones and her finest pearls, holding a ventuolo, a flag-shaped fan. She is spotlighted, and the intensity of the illumination is reflected in her hair, the sheen of the fabric of her dress, and the flush of her cheeks and lips. Her warm, dark brown eyes offset her opalescent skin and gown, and echo the dark terracotta of the mottled background. Her image could almost be seen as a monochromatic impression, save for the punctuation of her evocative red lips, with that demure smile. 

Interpretations of this inscrutable picture have been voiced as early as 100 years after Titian executed it, and uncertainty about the sitter still abounds to this day. Is this a portrait of his daughter Lavinia, his illegitimate daughter Emilia, or might she be his mistress? Does it depict a blushing bride on her wedding day? Should it not be considered a traditional portrait, but rather an idealized image depicting the very essence of the beauty and spirit of Venetian women? 

Archival documents give us some clues, but no answers. In 1561, Titian himself referred to this painting in a letter to Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara (1533–1597), saying that the image represented someone very dear to him, “the most precious being” in his life. In an earlier letter to Philip II of Spain, an avid collector of Titian’s work, the artist referred to another version of the painting (now lost), calling the sitter “the absolute mistress of my soul.” Based on these words, the painting was catalogued as early as 1663 in the Este collection as “Titian’s mistress.” Over the centuries, art historians and biographers have speculated on the subject’s identity, but to this day we cannot be certain who this mysterious beauty might be. 

Titian’s work was greatly admired by the first owner of this painting, the aforementioned Alfonso II d’Este, who was a prodigious patron of the arts and sciences. King Augustus III of Poland and Elector of Saxony (1696–1763) purchased the painting directly from the Este collection in 1746, and it has remained in the venerable Dresden collections since that time. 

The installation of Titian’s Lady in White is organized by Chief Curator Carol Togneri. A series of lectures and related events will be offered in conjunction with its presentation at the Norton Simon Museum.

The Titians in Norton Simon Museum

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Titian (Italian, c.1487/90-1576), Portrait of a Man, 16th century. Oil on canvas, 38 x 32 in. (96.5 x 81.3 cm). The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1965.1.064.P. © The Norton Simon Foundation

As early as 1927, an interoffice communication to Sir Joseph Duveen about this portrait revealed that William Addison Holder, an independent London conservator Duveen had contracted to clean this painting, found as he began to remove its varnish and overpainting that the work was in a “terrible state.” Holder was told to halt his work immediately and “put the picture back into the condition in which it was before…..” At that time the picture was attributed to Giorgione, but Bernard Berenson classified it in the same year as Giulio Campi, and then later identified it as a “Copy after a lost Titian.” The painting was carefully analyzed in 1965 at the New York University conservation lab, and in 1988 the restorer Mario Modestini performed a major intervention, reworking the larger loss near the proper right ear and restretching the canvas. At that point, a variety of attributions were posited, including not only early Titian, but also Bernardino Licinio (c. 1489–c. 1565), Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490–1547), and Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480–1556).

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Titian (Italian, c.1487/90-1576), Venetian Nobleman, after 1530. Oil on canvas, 42-1/2 x 36 in. (108.0 x 91.4 cm). The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1965.1.065.P. © The Norton Simon Foundation.

The most startling aspect of The Venetian Nobleman is the fact that it is painted over another fully finished and cut-down portrait of a seated man, possibly a cleric, with a beard. Seen in splendid clarity in the accompanying x-ray, the painting beneath is most likely by a different hand that several experts have suggested could be an unremarkable image by Leandro Bassano. This secondary portrait was discovered during a routine conservation study in 1978, and after the small window was opened to expose the eyes of the sitter, Mr. Simon suggested that it be exhibited as is. While the dating of the uppermost portrait is unclear, it is surely a studio version or later copy after the stunning Portrait of Giacomo Dolfin that Titian painted around 1531 and that was conveniently purchased in 1981 by the neighboring Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Except for the curtain that hangs behind the sitter in the “upper” Simon portrait, it and the LACMA canvas are nearly identical in size and composition. At some point in the painting’s history, the background of the LACMA portrait also had the same type of unfolded curtain that remains in the Simon picture, but it was removed during a conservation effort in 1980. The execution of the two paintings differs dramatically, however: the Simon portrait lacks Titian’s masterful handling of the powerful pyramidal figure seen in the sumptuously rendered LACMA work, as well as the potent, commanding stare of this officeholder of the Venetian Republic.

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Titian (Italian, c.1487/90-1576), Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 16th century. Oil on canvas, 34 x 29 in. (86.4 x 73.7 cm). The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1965.1.066.P. © The Norton Simon Foundation.

This painting is first documented in the 1603 inventory of the prestigious Roman collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, alongside another painting of the same subject and by the same artist: Tiziano Vecellio. Both paintings passed by inheritance into the Doria Pamphilij Gallery, but whereas the better version remained in the collection (and still resides there today), the Simon painting was sold by the Doria family in the late eighteenth century. It has been called the best workshop replica of the Doria original. Why two paintings of the same style and subject came to be owned by the same family for almost two hundred years has never been established.

Titian was known to have a large, bustling workshop, where students duplicated a number of his most popular compositions; some paintings were finished or corrected by Titian himself, allowing them to be sold as the work of the master. In this case, at least four versions of the Doria original (which was executed around 1515) are known to have been made.

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Titian (Italian, c.1487/90-1576), Virgin and Child with St. John, 16th century. Oil on canvas, 38-1/4 x 32-1/4 in. (97.2 x 81.9 cm). The Norton Simon Foundation, F.1965.1.067.P. © The Norton Simon Foundation.

While some compositional antecedents in Titian’s work resemble the figures of the Madonna and Child, this scene was most likely painted by an artist active in Titian’s studio in the sixteenth century. The picture was in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as early as 1773, when it was documented in an inventory. The red number inscribed on the lower right corner of the canvas originally read “2880,” a number given to it in a subsequent Hermitage inventory made in 1797 and another made in 1859. By this time, the curatorial staff of the Hermitage questioned the attribution to Titian, and it was changed to “Venetian School of the XVI century”; Hermitage archival documents are annotated with the words “copy of Titian, can be Padovanino.” In 1861, Tsar Alexander II presented the painting, along with others, to Moscow’s Rumianzoff (Rumyantsev) Museum, which was closed in 1927. The old master paintings from this collection then formed the nucleus of the Pushkin Museum, where the Virgin and Child with St. John remained until 1929, when it was sent to Berlin to be sold.

The Hermitage descriptions mention only a “Virgin and Infant Jesus with the youthful St. John holding a scroll.” It therefore may be that the heavenly host of angels seen surrounding the Virgin and Child had already been damaged by the middle of the eighteenth century and overpainted with a dark background. Certainly by the time the painting was sold in 1929, the illustration in the auction catalogue showed the painting devoid of putti. By 1939, when William Suhr conserved the picture for Duveen’s, the painting was cleaned, and the faces of the putti, although heavily abraded especially on the left, were restored to the composition. It was only later in 1988 that another restorer attempted to reconstruct the constellation of angels on the left.