Three years on…

Day 1 – Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

So – it’s three years since I started writing this blog! On the 17 March I walked into London to see the National Gallery’s Titian, and, realising that all the museums were closing, all the theatres were shut, and all my work had been cancelled, I realised there was no reason to be in London. On the 18 March I was rescued by a Knight in Shining Armour (actually, a Ford Focus) and taken up to Durham, where I’ve lived ever since (with regular forays back to London, after the first five months had elapsed…). The next day, 19 March, I started posting on my Facebook Page, then transferred to WordPress – hence the first comment after this paragraph. So thank you to all of you, my loyal followers – by now there are now nearly 1,500 of you! People sometimes ask me why I don’t send out a mailing list of all of my talks and courses – well, it’s all on the diary, and with every post there is a link to the diary in the first paragraph – so, if that’s what you want, just click on that! And I always mention upcoming talks, with links to them, in the first paragraph… so the first paragraph is my newsletter, for those who want a newsletter, and then after that follows the blog, if you’re the sort of person who likes more extensive reading. Having said that, things are always open for change, and I’m having one of those ‘up in the air’ moments when I’m not sure what’s happening next. I may have to change the date of the Morandi talk. If you’ve booked already – thank you! – I’ll get back to you with options if I do need to postpone it. If you haven’t – hold fire… I should know what’s going on soon. Meanwhile, I’m in Amsterdam again… and off for a second visit to Vermeer (I know, it’s hard work, but someone has to do it). But back to what almost seem like more innocent days, with my first post from three years ago.

after 2019 cleaning

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 the Titian 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.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

11 thoughts on “Three years on…

  1. Thank you so much for your Vermeer lecture. It was so useful before our visit last week to the exhibition. If anyone has a friend’s membership go mid/late afternoon as it was much quieter than the morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in Boston at the moment and visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum 2 days ago. The Rape of Europa is one treasure amongst many. The fluid brushstrokes, the colours and the areas of bare canvas in the sky made me stay with this painting a while. I couldn’t decide how willing or unwilling Europe is – she is hanging on to one of Jupiter’s horns tightly. If she let go she would slip off his back into the water. Perhaps she can’t swim?
    Yesterday the ISG sent an email having made the difficult decision to close for the day. They had been warned of climate change protesters demonstrating inside and were concerned for the safety of their collection. Yesterday March 18th was the 33rd anniversary of the great art theft from the ISG, which is as yet unsolved.

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  3. Good afternoon Dr Stemp/Richard

    Thank you so very much for setting up this blog – it continues to be a source of great enjoyment and we have learned so much from it, from your National Gallery lectures (completed all Stories of Art series during that time), and your other exploits (I hope you don’t mind me calling them that – the theatrical is very much present in your work). My aspiration is to go on one of your tours – hopefully once I am back on two feet (TKR on May 1)….

    If you vaguely recognise the name it is because we have been in contact on twitter: I am delighted that you will be going to the Fontana in Dublin – the restoration undertaken by Maria Canavan is absolutely wonderful. I first heard of Fontana and Carriera from your lectures and blogs, so thank you for that also. If your visit coincides with the Pastels Revealed exhibition the Carriera are an absolute highlight..

    I wish you all the very best for your trip to Dublin, Ailbhe (Fallon)


    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been a great pleasure, thank you!
      I’m looking forward to Dublin, and glad to say that the Pastels will still be there soon after Fontana opens,
      Wishing you all the best with the knee,


  4. Thank you, Richard, yes, I’m still here- just – (92, now!); it’s been wonderful, I’ve read
    practically every one of them, and it certainly carried me thru’ the long months of Lockdown. Many congratulations, I don’t know how you kept going….my sixth book –
    “Furry Tails, cats tell tales of their once-famous owners “ out now on Amazon, so, on
    we go, and I’m doing a tiny bit of filming….all good wishes, and a big thank you for all
    the pleasure from reading your blogs – Pamela Binns.


  5. So lovely to hear from you Pamela, you’re such an inspiration! Still filming! I’ve only just started… so it’s good to know I couple of years ahead of me. And I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the blogs: thank you for taking the time to let me know, it means a lot!


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