As a Bostonian, I’ve had the chance to often see one of the best Titian paintings (as well as one of the most famous Renaissance paintings), Titian’s Rape of Europa.

But first a bit about Titian (officially Tiziano Vecellio).  He was born around 1488 into a family of modest means living in the mountains north of Venice, and studied in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, Venice’s most prominent artist in the 15th century.

Titian.  Self Portrait, c. 1560.  Oil on canvas, 86 cm by 65 cm.  Prado, Madrid.

Titian’s genius (and lasting legacy) came from integrating three influences:

  • Bellini’s work, known for its sharp delineation of form, clarity, and pure tones;
  • the artistic style and thematic innovations of Giorgione; and
  • Titian’s own expressive brushwork and thick paint application.

Indeed, Titian and Giorgione shared workspace from approximately 1500-1510, so that their similarity of style in Titian’s early career is hardly shocking. It has led to confusion about the attribution of several Renaissance paintings, most significantly The Concert Champetre, or Pastoral Concert.  Nearly five centuries of art history later, it was only recently attributed to Titian rather than to Giorgione!

After Giorgione died from plague in 1510, Titian became the most famous painter of the 16th century Italian Renaissance.  None other than Velazquez opined on the reputation of Titian:

To tell the truth, I do not like Raphael at all. It is in Venice that the finest things are to be found… It is Titian who carries the day”.

Titian’s stature in art history remains unshakeable for two general reasons:

  • Titian transformed the status of the painter from lowly craftsman to creative genius, becoming the first painter to attain international recognition; and
  • Titian mastered two types of Renaissance paintings most popular with 16th century rulers: portraiture, in which Titian brilliantly melded realism with idealism, and mythological paintings such as Rape of Europa.

Painted for Phillip II, King of Spain, this mythological painting portrays the abduction of Europa by Jupiter, who dupes Europa with his disguise as a bull. Rape of Europa is a study of contrasts: Europa is a reclining nude both submissive and resistant, both abandoned with desire and frightened, beneath a sky of opposites, both calm blue sky and with threatening storms.

Above right: Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Europe, 1560-62.  Oil on canvas, 178 x 205 cm. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts

The putti, or Cupids, in the sky and atop the dolphin are mesmerized watching the tension between the lovers; the nymphs, vague on the distant shore, watch and wave helplessly. Europa’s generous, billowing flesh and Jupiter’s tail seem to quiver with excitement at the pending sexual act.

This famous artwork lives at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where I’ve had the pleasure of its frequent company.  With each visit, I’m reminded that the bull’s eye – which Titian painted as inescapably leering, impossible to avoid – is the most intensely painted eye in Western art, human or animal.

It’s riveting, dares you not to stare back, and is not to be missed.

Intrigued by Renaissance paintings?

You’ll find some of the most famous Renaissance paintings (and those from other eras, too) in Masterpiece Cards.  

This set of 250 art history flashcards reproduce and explain some of the most famous paintings in art history.

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