A Titian masterpiece heads to auction

The upcoming sale of a painting by Titian and his workshop has been described as a “once in a generation opportunity” for potential buyers. Scheduled to come under the hammer at Sotheby’s in December, Venus and Adonis is part of the poesie series of paintings by the artist which all depict mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical works.

Titian was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain to create six large mythological paintings, which the artist completed between 1554 and 1562. Numerous versions of each painting exist, with some thirty of the Venus and Adonis composition dating to the sixteenth century, all of which have varying attributions, ranging from ‘by Titian’ to ‘workshop’, and often a combination of the two. The compositions have some variations between each, often the number of dogs, or the scenes in the background. The present painting is the “Lausanne version”, as it has recently been residing in Lausanne in the collection of Patrick de Charmant, who died in 2010. As The Art Newspaper have pointed out, despite the fact that Sotheby’s refer to the painting as by Titian in their press releases, it is attributed to “Titian and workshop” in their catalogue notes, and carries an estimate of £8-12million, which, despite being a huge sum, Titian expert Charles Hope has suggested is an “unrealistically low [estimate] for an autograph Titian of that size and that period.”

Hope’s perspective on the painting is that it is not actually by Titian, but entirely by his workshop. He suspects that “Titian himself had little or nothing” to do with the execution of the majority of the versions of the Venus and Adonis composition in the poesie series, commenting, “why would the most famous painter of his day, at the height of his success, waste his time on painting the same picture again and again? He seems to have had competent assistants to do that kind of work.” But not all academics have agreed with Hope’s opinion. Technical analysis in 2015 led to a broad consensus that the work was at least conceived and developed by Titian, rather than just by his workshop. In 2017, art historian Thomas Dalla Costa curated an exhibition titled Renaissance Venice: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese at the Pushkin State Museum in Moscow, and published a book subsequently on Titian’s Venus and Adonis, in which he states that the work shows “clear evidence of the artist’s hand.” Further, in a 2021 exhibition at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, this version of the painting was labelled as by Titian “without qualification”.

The painting is certainly a remarkable version of the subject and boasts an impressive provenance, having been in the collections of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), who displayed it in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna in 1723, and the artist Benjamin West (1738-1820). Cecilia Treves, Head of Research for Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s London, said, “this is one of Titian’s most famous compositions that shows his genius for sensuous subjects in rich landscape settings”. George Gordon, Co-Chairman for Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s also spoke enthusiastically about the work, stating that it is “one of the very finest of Titian’s renditions of the subject” and that recent research “has revealed the full extent of the artist’s hand in the execution of this painting”.

Given the varying opinions over the attribution of the work, and the conservative estimate, it will be interesting to see how much the work sells for in December. Before its sale, Venus and Adonis will be on view at Sotheby’s New York and Hong Kong in November.

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