Art, Art Museums, Museum Exhibitions

After 240 years, Titian’s First Masterpiece Leaves Russia for London Show

National Gallery borrows The Flight Into Egypt, not seen outside Russia since it was bought by Catherine the Great in 1768

[]  Catherine the Great bought Titian‘s The Flight Into Egypt in 1768. Since then the large painting, described by the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari as Titian’s first masterpiece, has not been seen outside Russia – until Tuesday.

Loaned to the National Gallery in London by the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the 505-year-old artwork is looking better than it has for decades, after undergoing intensive cleaning and restoration.

The Hermitage began restoring it in 1999, and the whole process took two people more than 12 years. “It was so dark, under layers of varnish and retouches which completely altered it,” said Irina Artemieva, curator of Venetian paintings at the Hermitage. “There was no green or blue, only grey and brown and black.”

Two years ago, Artemieva sent an image of the work to the National Gallery director Sir Nicholas Penny, another specialist in the Venetian paintings of the period. “He was so surprised by the results of the restoration, we immediately had the idea to present it here in the National Gallery.”

The painting is displayed alongside works that inspired it, by artists including Giovanni BelliniGiorgione and Albrecht Dürer. Titian trained under the first two, and the third was working in Venice at the time The Flight Into Egypt was painted. The curator Antonio Mazzotta described the other works as the ingredients that went into Titian’s painting.  Read more at theguardian.

Here are images of the masterwork prior to and after the 12 year-long restoration:

Titian, "The Flight Into Egypt", circa 1508, Oil on Canvas, 206 x 336 cm, Collection of The Hermitage Museum
Prior to Restoration

Titian, "The Flight Into Egypt", circa 1508, Oil on Canvas, 206 x 336 cm, Collection of The Hermitage Museum.
After Restoration

Restoration of the Painting

[]  The work, painted in the early 1500s, came into the Hermitage between 1763 and 1774. In the second half of the 19th century it was moved to the Gatchina palace, from where it returned to the Hermitage in 1924.

Since March 1999, on the suggestion of the Restoration Commission for Easel Painitng, Titian’s canvas has been undergoing complex restoration in the State Hermiatge’s Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Painting.

Titian's "Flight into Egypt" during Restoration

Visual investigation by the restorers A.V. Kuznetsov and V.V. Shatsky showed that the painting had been lined with thin linen canvas, the original canvas being made of three pieces 66, 71 and 67 centimetres wide sewn together with horizontal seams. The connection between the paint layer and the primer was poor and separation and loss of the paint layer had occurred in many places across the whole surface. In the course of one of the previous restorations (apparently in the 18th century), the painting had been enlarged by the addition of a 9-centimetre-wide attachment on the right-hand side.

There were striking stiff deformations of the original base along the lines of the horizontal seams that interfered with the viewer’s perception of the painting as a single whole. The artist’s colour scheme had been distorted by the numerous layers of darkened and yellowed varnish that had been applied to the painting in its lifetime. Visual examination in conjunction with studies of luminescence under ultra-violet light showed a large number of insertions of different dates overlying the artist’s own painting and in places entirely concealing it. This interference was most probably prompted by damage caused to the original paint layer as a result of inept restoration in the 18th century.

The complex restoration work was entrusted to Kuznetsov and Shatsky, two restoration artists of the highest category. The paint layer was reattached to the primer across the whole surface. The painting was removed from the stretcher and the backing canvas removed. After the removal of the old restorers’ glue from the back of the original canvas, the paint layer was again reattached to the primer across the whole surface, after which the deformations were removed. On the reverse the area of the seams was treated with a wax-resin mastic and strengthened with bands of mica paper after which the painting was relined with dense linen canvas and placed on a new stretcher.

Tiziano Vecellio (“Titian”): Biographical Notes

Titian was the greatest painter of 16th-century Venice, and the first painter to have a mainly international clientele. During his long career, he experimented with many different styles of painting which embody the development of art during his epoch.

Detail from Titian, Self Portrait, 1566. Madrid, Prado. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Youth and Beginnings

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) was born in Pieve di Cadore, a small town at the foot of the Dolomites on the Venetian side of the Alps. The Vecellios had been based in Cadore since the 14th century. Titian’s father, Gregorio, was a military man. His older brother Francesco was also a painter. There is still no documentary evidence of Titian’s exact date of birth, but contemporary sources and his early stylistic development suggest that he was born around 1490.

When he was about 10 years old, Titian arrived in Venice, then one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Titian started his artistic training in the workshop of the mosaicist Sebastiano Zuccato. He later briefly joined Gentile Bellini’s workshop. After Gentile’s death in 1507, Titian joined the workshop of his brother, Giovanni Bellini, which at that time was the most important in Venice.

However, it was through contact with Giorgione, who had also previously trained in Giovanni Bellini’s workshop, that he mainly developed his early style. The Giorgionesque appearance of Titian’s early work, which is characterized by a pastoral mood, is proof of their closeness. In 1508-9 they worked together on the decoration of the external walls of the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice. The parts executed by Titian were greatly praised by contemporaries, much to the annoyance of Giorgione.

After Giorgione’s death in 1510, and Sebastiano del Piombo’s departure to Rome in 1511, Titian launched his independent career in Venice. He was now left without rivals among his generation who could compete at his level.  [See complete biographical notes here.]



One thought on “After 240 years, Titian’s First Masterpiece Leaves Russia for London Show

  1. I love this painting. What a wonderful job the restorers did – they are to be congratulated! Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    Posted by jan0eliz | April 4, 2012, 8:38 am

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