April 2010


Free-Market Art, c. 1555

by Megan Sleeper

On Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at Boston's MFA last year.

In any season, the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance would each merit a major museum exhibition. At Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) last spring and summer, however, art lovers were treated to a show featuring not just one of these masters, but three. Its title, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice alluded to the competition among these painters for commissions, fame, and dominance in the vibrant city in which they lived and worked.

The exhibition was well focused, thematically grouping works to allow for comparative viewing as well as study for visitors so inclined. A color-coded labeling system employed to distinguished each artist's work seemed redundant, if not distracting, however, as visitors unable to differentiate between the three could have simply read the wall labels if they wished. Biblical subjects, portraiture and classical nudes were the three major themes explored by the exhibition (see slideshow), which also considered, albeit inadequately, the social, political and economic conditions which fueled the competition among the three rivals.

With each artist leaving behind a large body of work, the Museum wisely did not attempt to show too much. Rather, the carefully selected paintings representing each painter allowed for a thought provoking consideration of this rich period of art. It seemed strange, however, that an exhibition focused on competition and rivalry should say so little, in terms of wall text or catalogue essays, about the economic underpinnings which fueled the rivalry. The marketplace, instead of being emphasized as major force behind the artistic advancements of the day, seemed relegated to a mere footnote. As the United States faces a period of economic turmoil and the role of capitalism is debated, the curators might have allowed for thoughtful consideration of the effects of market competition on the creation of art. Venetian artists of the Renaissance worked in a fiercely competitive environment fueled by the desire for commissions in a market filled with ready money and a growing merchant class eager to establish itself in society. This theme of competition, as it relates to artistic growth, poses a host of interesting questions which unfortunately were left unexamined.

Instead of emphasizing the economic implications of the rivalry between Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, the MFA focused on another segment of the show for its publicity--the theme of the nude (which merited only one small gallery)--sex, actually, with Titian's provocative Venus with a Mirror (1555) [click on image to enlarge] as its signature work (compare Veronese's Venus with a Mirror, and Tintoretto's Susannah and the Elders, c.1555-56). As Holland Cotter quipped in his review for the New York Times, "Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters": "Hot is the word for this show." The Museum seized upon Cotter's words, featuring them in telling typography on its exhibition website directly opposite an oversize image of Titian's sensuous Venus: "HOT IS THE WORD FOR THIS SHOW. . ." (which alternated with a more sedate blurb from a Newsweek review, justly featuring the term "breathtaking" in its purely art historical sense). Cotter, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, went on to remark that "in a gallery of female nudes with skin so incandescent as to barely need lighting, eroticism floats like a scent." "Incandescent" as these nudes may be, Cotter should have emphasized the larger point of the exhibition. And by evoking his sensational, though somewhat limited, characterization of the show, the MFA may have further detracted from the thought-provoking aspects of commerce and competition, which were unique to this exhibition.

Viewers lured to the show with hopes of glimpsing erotic works would have been disappointed to walk through several galleries of martyred saints, altarpieces, crucifixions, and portraiture before coming upon the one dedicated to this classic theme. Granted, sex sells. But it was more than a bit disappointing that this provocative exhibition was being showcased in such a manner. In any case, what remained was an inspiring visual treat--work after work by three master painters that gave visitors an insight into the creation of magnificent paintings born out of the economic boom of sixteenth-century Venice. That, in the end, proved to be enough.

Megan Sleeper is Assistant to the Editors of Aristos.

The exhibition: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (March 15 - August 16, 2009); Louvre, Paris (September 17, 2009 - January 4, 2010)

The catalogue: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese

The three painters: Titian (c.1485-1576), Tintoretto (c.1518-1594), and Veronese (c.1528-1588).

For further reading: "16th Century Arts Scene," Public Radio International (March 12, 2009); Charles Paul Freund, "Buying into Culture: How Commerce Cultivates Art," Reason, June 1998.

Upcoming Exhibition: "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland."

Co-organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this show will premiere at the High Museum, where it will be on view from October 16, 2010, through January 2, 2011. It will then travel to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (February 5 - May 1, 2011) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (May 21 - August 14, 2011).