On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

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