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It’s an enchanting thought – but did Titian have a hand in the Wellington Orpheus?

2 August 2019

Following recently completed conservation treatment, a largish picture of Orpheus Enchanting the Animals, which has historically been hung high on the wall at Apsley House with a vague attribution to a later follower of Titian, has now been upgraded. A press release, just issued, describes it as by ‘Titian’s workshop, in collaboration with the master himself’. The first part is credible, the second more doubtful.

The picture shows the seated, nude Orpheus viewed from behind, his elegantly curving back in particular catching the eye. He is playing a viola to an attendant and varied group of animals, natural and fantastic. A landscape backdrop, consisting mostly of fleeting clouds across an open sky, is framed on either side by a sturdy tree trunk and foliage. Conceived with equal measures of humour and reverence, the picture is a charming paean to the potential for music to induce in us a harmony akin to the one we lost when our ancestors left nature behind.

Orpheus Enchanting the Animals (16th century), attributed to Titian’s workshop.

Orpheus Enchanting the Animals (16th century), attributed to Titian’s workshop, photographed after recent conservation. © English Heritage

The composition is known in three versions, of which the Apsley House one appears clearly to be of the highest quality. A picture at the Prado is surely a 17th-century copy, while another that was lost in Vienna during the Second World War seems from reproductions to have been more schematic in execution and thus perhaps also a copy. The Apsley House Orpheus belonged to Don Iñigo Lópes de Mendoza, fifth Duke of Infantado, courtier to Titian’s greatest patron King Philip II of Spain, and a significant patron to the master in his own right, who died in 1601. It remained in the family until sometime before 1666 when it appears in the posthumous inventory of King Philip IV’s collections. It was among the artworks seized from Joseph Bonaparte at the battle of Vitoria in 1813 by Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, and was subsequently given to the duke by the grateful King Ferdinand VII. It has been part of the public collection at Apsley House since the majority of the Wellington Collection was donated to the nation in 1947.

The painting was generally thought to be by Titian (c. 1488–1576), until the late 19th century when it was reassigned to Alessandro Varotari, called il Padovanino (1588–1649) – a perfectly able but also rather pedestrian epigone of the Venetian master, who for the better part of a century has tended to be used as a wastepaper basket for Titian also-rans. But the timeline of its provenance ­­makes Padovanino’s authorship impossible and the painting exhibits none of his stolid slickness.

On the contrary, the cleaning has made its always-obvious Titianesque qualities stand out more clearly. Perhaps surprisingly, they are less apparent in the painting’s central figure than in its secondary elements. The figure of Orpheus is a straightforward borrowing from a design that Bronzino painted on a harpsichord cover in around 1530–32, which was popularised in an engraving by Giulio Sanuto, a printmaker with whom Titian had dealings in the late 1550s and early 1560s. The body is carefully and subtly modelled, with an opaque build-up of highlights that has little to do with Titian’s technique, especially as it developed in the later decades of his life towards an extraordinary economy of application. The profile head and the laurel wreath are particularly distinct from Titian in their firmness of execution. While the red drapery on which Orpheus sits is painted in obvious imitation of the master’s technique, it is also too painstaking to match the boldness with which he would execute such passages in his later career.

Meanwhile, the suggestion of fluffy cumulus clouds in the upper background recalls similar passages in many a Titian studio picture of the 1560s. As per Titian’s practice of those years, the sky is painted mostly in blue smalt that has degraded to a greyish brown over time, but with hints of greenish azurite at top. Similarly, the tree and foliage are executed with clear reference to Titian’s work. The same goes for the larger animals, painted with a fluid touch that is very close indeed to that of the master, even if the endearing baby dragon has little of his sense of bodily movement – compare the similarly humorous, but more convincing creature in his pen drawing of Roger and Angelica, now in Bayonne (Musée Bonnat). The sleeping dog at lower left was a late addition, adapted from Titian’s Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1560–65) at the Prado and, before that, his so-called Urbino Venus (in the Uffizi) of around 1538. The smaller animals, in stark contrast, are so feebly rendered that they must have been the responsibility of a second hand – transparency of pigment reveals that at least one of the birds was painted over a stronger lay-in.

Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1560–65), Titian.

Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1560–65), Titian. © Museo Nacional del Prado

We are dealing, then, with a competent artist close to Titian, but sufficiently autonomous to formulate his own solutions to important elements, most notably the figure of Orpheus. It is likely that Titian oversaw the execution of the painting, which may well have been a direct commission by Mendoza: infrared reflectography reveals that prime elements are underdrawn freehand in a liquid medium in a manner close to that found it autograph works of the period. But while Titian often did add peripheral details, such as landscape elements, to paintings primarily executed by assistants, I remain doubtful of his direct intervention in this picture. The passages that most recall his style, such as the animals and the sky, are also the easiest to imitate and, while lovely, none stands out as exceptional.

It is unusual for Titian so directly to appropriate another artist’s work as was done here with the central figure. It should probably be interpreted as a homage, perhaps made with the appreciation that Bronzino’s design provides a male counterpart to Titian’s own, famous figure of the seated goddess of love, also viewed from behind, in his much-replicated Venus and Adonis composition. The most famous version of this latter, in the Prado, is dated 1554, but the Titian studio was issuing variants of it well into the 1560s.

Despite many valiant attempts, it has proven exceedingly difficult to identify individual hands in Titian’s late workshop. He kept a small number of assistants on permanent staff and also relied on the services of his son Orazio Vecellio as well as, occasionally, his distant relative Cesare Vecellio. None of these, however, was particularly gifted and Titian was, at best, a reluctant teacher whose style in the later years in any case became so personally distinct that it was nigh impossible to teach.

In addition to these stalwarts, however, a considerable number of artists – sometimes of talent – passed through his workshop over the years, not least from the 1550s onwards. It is likely that the artist responsible for the Apsley House Orpheus is to be found among these ‘visitors’. Speculation will inevitably be rash, but one might think of the skilled Paduan painter Damiano Mazza, although the Orpheus does not exhibit the more fulsome, pasty brushwork we know from his few confirmed works. The even more obscure portraitist Giovanni Paolo Pace, who worked in Titian’s close orbit from the 1540s onwards, and imitated his style with some success, would be another candidate, but we do not know any narrative works by him, or indeed any work at all after 1560.

Matthias Wivel is curator of 16th-century Italian paintings at the National Gallery in London.