Museums + Galleries

Fish, Blood, and Oil

Titian's Renaissance masterpieces debut at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Choosing suitable subject matter for a pair of massive oil paintings destined to hang in the personal apartments of a king would seem a daunting task. Titian, who forms a sort of holy trinity of High Renaissance art alongside Michelangelo and Raphael, was given just such a commission by Spain’s Philip IV—a looseness of artistic license unprecedented in the history of patronage to that point. The results of that undertaking are considered among Titian’s finest work, and—for the first time ever—American audiences will now be able to see Titian’s Dianas without taking a transatlantic flight.

Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland includes a dozen paintings by Titian, as well as works by Tintoretto, Veronese, Bassano, and Lotto that reflect the artist’s influence on others. Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator Patrick Noon describes the works in the exhibition as “one of the high points of Western art.” Indeed, he calls the storied Bridgewater collection, from which many of the Titian paintings in the show came, as “the most famous collection ever.” The centerpieces of the exhibition—Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (shown above)—occupy the very pinnacle of Titian’s oeuvre.

Lyrical and nuanced, Titian’s mythology-inspired compositions distinguish the artist as “a master of describing tragic poetry,” says Noon. They also embody the qualities that elevate Titian above the fray: realism, scale, color, and oil.

“Venetian painting parted ways with other Italian greats of the era [who were using gesso and tempera] with the use of oil painting brought from the north. . . . Oil allows for much richer, deeper color, and for softer transitions in the modeling of forms,” says Noon. “The introduction of oil painting was an important innovation that set up a rivalry between color and composition, which became the two distinct ways of going about painting through the 19th century.”

Unmatched as a colorist, Titian had a particular affinity for the human body, especially the female form. “Titian had astonishing ability to depict human flesh. It’s what he’s most famous for,” says Noon. “It appears to pulse with life and blood.” The switch to oil painting also enabled Titian to work with greater scale. “The paintings are really big, almost life-size,” says Noon, “so that you feel you are part of this scene when you walk in on these pictures.” And rest assured, it’s a scene you’re going to want to be part of. Feb. 6–May 1. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 612-870-3000,