Day 1 – Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
Originally posted on 19 March, 2020
In these extraordinary times, I’m going to attempt to write about a painting every day – but where to start? Having made a pilgrimage on foot to the National Gallery on Tuesday to catch the wonderful Titian exhibition just after it opened and immediately before it closed again, I am choosing the Rape of Europa from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
The painting is one of six Poesie which Titian made for the man who would become King Phillip II of Spain. They must rank among Titian’s greatest achievements. Not only do they show his phenomenal technique, his astonishing ability to manipulate paint and to form worlds out of colour, but they also demonstrate his brilliance as a storyteller. Drawing on classical mythology, and mainly the Metamorphoses of Ovid, he enters into a common Renaissance debate about the arts: which is better, poetry or painting? Although drawing much of his imagery from Ovid’s text, these are not illustrations. He adapts the stories, reworks them, finding the perfect way to spin his yarn on canvas. He retells the tales with brushstrokes rather than words.
Why this one, of the six? Well, although I have been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at least three times, I can’t in all honesty say I stopped to look at this painting – there are so many other wonders there, and at the time I was either in my early stages of studying art history, and knew nothing, or was obsessed with the Ferrarese paintings in the collection. I’ve come to know it better through talking about the Poesie – particularly when the National Gallery acquired, with the National Galleries of Scotland, the two Diana paintings – and while teaching courses on the art of the 16th Century. I also love the fact that Velazquez knew it in the Royal Collection in Spain, and quoted it in the background of one of his own works. However, before Tuesday, I couldn’t swear that I had seen the original before, so in that respect, it is new to me.
In this work we see how, in his endless and unquenchable lust, in order to get his hands on the beautiful nymph Europa, Jupiter has transformed himself into a bull. He persuaded Mercury to drive a herd of cows down to the beach, and frolicked among them, flirting with Europa, who happened to be there with her companions. She was gradually entranced by his winning ways, and, as she clambered upon his back, he sidled from shore to sea, going from the shallows through the waves, without her realising what deep water he was getting her into. Her companions – and the unwitting herd – can be seen in the distance, helpless on the shoreline.
It’s a problematic story – it is after all a story of rape. Is she entirely unwilling? In this instance it isn’t all that clear, although in other encounters Ovid is explicit about the dread and terror Jupiter’s victims experience. Like Jupiter, Titian seduces us. His means: rich colours and lushly applied brushstrokes, underplaying the horror with a touch of the absurd. I’d never noticed before how cupid rides his fish in much the same bizarre and awkward way that Europa rides the bull, one arm clinging on, waving (not drowning), a leg flying free.
The other fish was a revelation, a new favourite, and I’d like to nominate it as the Best Fish in Art, a category of which I was previously unaware (although I do have two suggestions for the Best Cabbage). Its scales are evoked with flicks of white and blue paint, making it glimmer at the bottom of the painting, as if is merging with the sea, appearing and disappearing, painted with similar brushstrokes and tones to the sea itself, part of the watery world over which Europa is now conveyed.
Eventually she will get her feet back on dry land – on the continent of Europe, which took her name. And eventually we will be able to see these paintings again, brought together for the first time, to be seen as Titian himself never did, all in one room. I am a least glad that these paintings, long separated, must be enjoying some quiet time together, but I am looking forward to seeing them all again when we have got to the other side.