A Tale of Three Titians

Art history places a high premium on originality, especially the singular masterpiece. But there are certain occasions when multiplicity is embraced, including works created as part of a series or cast sculpture and printed materials, which are often produced as one of an edition. It is unusual, however, for a museum to include multiple versions of the same artwork in an exhibition.

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, on view at the de Young through February 12, 2012, boasts not one, not two, but three variations of Titian’s enigmatic masterwork The Bravo (The Assassin).

Two Bravos

In 1650, while serving as governor of the Netherlands, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm acquired a significant selection of Venetian masterpieces, many of which are on display in this exhibition, including Titian’s The Bravo.

Portrait of Leopold William

Balthazar Moncornet (French, 1630–1670). Portrait of Leopold William, Archduke of Austria, 17th century. Engraving. Gift of Dr. Leon Kolb. 1955.45.708

Proud of his growing collection Wilhelm, commissioned his court painter, David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), to paint the Archduke amidst his many, many masterpieces. It would be one of several such paintings commissioned by Wilhelm and would serve as an invaluable visual inventory of his acquisitions.

Upon first entry into the exhibition, you will immediately encounter a large-scale reproduction of Teniers’s Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Gallery in Brussels.

Teniers

David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, 1610–1694). Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, ca. 1650. Oil on canvas.

If you look closely, you will see that among this multifarious group, Titian’s The Bravo is reproduced front and center.

Teniers detail

David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, 1610–1694). Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels (detail), ca. 1650. Oil on canvas.

Teniers was also called upon to create an illustrated catalog of the Archduke’s collection, entitled Theatrum pictorium (or Theater of Painting). While conducting research for the Masters of Venice exhibition, curatorial assistant for European art Melissa Buron discovered in the Museums’ collection a contemporary copy of this very book entitled Amphitheatrum picturarum, attributed to Lucas Vorsterman the Younger from 1658.

In this volume appears yet another version of Titian’s The Bravo. Although far from an exact replica of the original, this image quite literally mirrors Titian’s The Bravo. Because it is an engraving, the composition appears reversed, as if in a mirror.

Lucas Vorsterman the Younger (Flemish, 1624–1667). Amphitheatrum picturarum (Antwerp: Abraham Teniers, 1658), 1658. Book with engravings. A102782

Although each of these works comes with an intriguing backstory, neither can compare with Titian’s masterful original.

The Bravo

Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (ca. 1488–1576). The Bravo (The Assassin), ca. 1515–1520. Oil on canvas.

The subject of this painting remains a topic of debate, but current scholarship suggests that the figure under attack is the Roman god Bacchus. As told by the ancient playwright Euripides, the King of Thebes wished to halt the orgiastic escapades of Bacchus and his followers. To this end, the king ordered the arrest of the god–it is this exact moment that Titian captures in The Bravo. Titian brilliantly portrays Bacchus’s outrage, whose expression explicitly registers arrogant disbelief at the affront of being arrested by a mere mortal.

Come play detective at the Masters of Venice exhibition and sleuth out all three versions of Titian’s masterpiece. Masters of Venice: Painters of Passion and Power is on view at the de Young through February 12, 2012.