The Allegory of Prudence is an iconic masterpiece attributed to the Venetian Renaissance artist, Titian. It is a popular painting in the collection of The National Gallery, London. But was it actually painted by the master or is it a misattribution? Danish art researcher, Svend Erik Hendriksen gives his honest opinion to ArtLyst readers.
I hope you are beholders of a sense of logic. I know it is not that easy in the world of cut throat art historians and I know this episode will be considered by some, a repugnant attack on the respected art establishment; to others it will be enlightening. This painting will prove my point, since every art historian, dealer and auction-house expert has been standing in front of this imprudence and admiring it as the work of Titian. As I said, it all depends on which side of the fence you are standing. Let the facts speak for themselves.
This story goes beyond the subjective opinions of previous opinions and raises questions that should have been voiced years ago about a key work belonging to the National Gallery of London. It is directed towards the Allegory of Prudence, a work claimed to be painted, as the aforementioned example, by the famous Venetian master of the Italian Renaissance, Titian.
Let me give you the history and circumstances surrounding this attribution, which also claims to be a self-portrait of Titian.
The painting shows three faces: the center portrait in frontal view, the ones to the left and right in profile. Under the left head is an aging dog, under the right a profile of a young man a dog in his prime, and the central portrait has a head of a lion under it.
The left profile in the painting was identified for the first time by the famous art historian Erwin Panofsky in 1930. The book Hercules am Scheideweg p.1-30 (an English translation, bearing the Allegory of Prudence on the cover, is still currently sold at the National Gallery of London) Panofsky spends the first 30 pages idolizing the virtues of this painting; he identifies the left profile as Titian’s self-portrait. He identifies the central face as Titian’s younger son, the painter Orazio Vecellio, and the right profile as a distant relative and assistant to Titian, Marco Vecellio.
Noticeable to even the uninitiated, each face is painted in a different style. Even Wethey notes that the faces are done in different styles! And the left face is noticeably painted in Titian’s so-called “late style”.
According to the National Gallery, the known history of the painting starts only in 1740, 164 years after Titian’s death, with its appearance in the Crozat sale in France, surfacing again in France at the Duc de Tallard sale in 1756, with the identification of the faces at that time as Alfonzo de Este, Pope Julius II and Emperor Charles V.
This painting has never before been mentioned in any other writing on Titian or even in the inventory of Titian’s works by the famous Renaissance biographer and painter Vasari.
It passed through many hands after this, ending up at the Francis Howard sale at Christie’s 26 November 1956, where it was sold, with the new identification by Erwin Panofsky of the faces, as an autograph self-portrait by Titian. That Titian would have included Marco, his distant relative and minor assistant, in the painting is implausible. In fact the painting runs completely contrary to Titian’s ego as we know it.
At the Christie’s sale it was bought by a respected fine-art dealer (David Koetser) in London and subsequently donated to the National Gallery of London, its present home.
TIME Magazine US / People: Jun. 24, 1966
“It was quite a treasure for an art dealer to part with. Still, explained Zurich’s David Koetser, 58, “I am getting on in age. So I thought I would like to make a gift during my lifetime.” With that, he presented to London’s National Gallery the Allegory of Prudence, a magnificent 30-in. by-27-in. canvas by Titian. The gift is valued at $490,000.
In fact I’d like to quote Panofsky, the identifier of the faces in his book, where he said:
(In) the authenticity of Mr. Howard’s picture the Allegory the owner can be traced to the collection of Anton Crozat the patron and friend of Watteau; it cannot be, and as far as I know has never been questioned. Shining with the magnificence of Titian’s ultima manire (late style), it must be counted among his later work and dated on purely stylistic grounds between 1560 and 1570, probably 10 years before the master’s death (1576). Seen in the master’s oeuvre in its entirety however it is not only exceptional but unique.
To be frank, quite rightly the painting is exceptional and unique; in fact, if I may say this, it is probably the most unique painting in the world.
Titian must have had a special dispensation from God and returned to earth to paint this painting, and that would not only have been an achievement but also a miracle, since I know of only one celebrity that ever accomplished this feat.
The center face in the Allegory of Prudence has been compared by Panofsky with the center face in profile that stands behind Titian in the large painting the Mater Misericordiae in the Pitti Palace in Florence, which is in profile, and much longer, more slender. It is quite plausible and most likely that the face behind Titian belongs to his son Orazio. It certainly is not the same face as in the Allegory of Prudence in London. The facial features in the Mater are more elongated.
It is a most remarkably fairytale that is yet again repeated in the consensus-opinion catalogue of the recent Titian exhibition in 1990-91. Many years ago I sent a letter to the National Gallery of London and most other authorities on Titian, in particular Charles Hope, an English authority on Titian in London, explaining the impossibility and absurdity, with the brown eyes, of the painting being coveted as an autograph Titian, giving them of course the right identification of the faces.
Dear Mr. Hendriksen,
What you say is very interesting. I believe that one or possibly both of the known self-portraits will be in the forthcoming Titian at exhibition at the National Gallery; and then we will all be able to see if you are correct. And if you are correct, then obviously some questions have to be asked about the National Gallery picture and about the self-portraits. Clearly, if it transpires that the eye-colour of the old man in the NG picture is significantly different from that of the other two, and if that eye-colour is original (which I do not know), it would be difficult to attribute it to Titian himself, or to a member of the studio. I have no proposals for alternative candidates. But given that we do not have any very clear idea about the personal styles even of several members of Titian’s studio, this is not very surprising.
The idea that Marco Vecellio is present in the painting is pure speculation. We do not know at all what he looked like; and though many books imply that he was on close and friendly terms with Titian, the evidence is lacking. We know a bit more about the features of Orazio, and the best one can say is that they are not inconsistent with the man in the middle, which falls well short of saying that the man in the middle is Orazio.
But of course we do not know the purpose of the painting, and we cannot at present say whether the individuals are meant to be portraits, or merely representations of people of different ages, for which the artist, say Titian, used his own features for the oldest.
You have added one more layer of mystery to a mysterious picture.
Who do you think it is by?
Best wishes, Charles Hope”
The flustered authority agreed in writing that it could not possibly be Titian in the left face; but no matter what, the painting was still by Titian, he said, “we just don’t know the identities of the faces.” In fact I also have a letter from the National Gallery of London, thanking me for the letter I sent them, with the notice that it would be included with the material fact-file of the Allegory, by which they probably mean the nearest trashcan. Because a couple of years later the painting was included in a world tour of Titian’s works as by the master, with the same identification. Obviously having been confirmed many times, facts and observations from an outsider like me are of absolutely no consequence. And if it weren’t so serious, it is very humorous.
THE ABSURD SIDE OF THE STORY
The first time I saw the painting I noticed something very strange; as I said before, having by this time out of sheer necessity acquainted myself with Titian’s paintings, particularly his self-portraits
To my shock, I realized that Titian had dark brown eyes in the painting of the Allegory, contrary to the signed self-portrait in Titian’s hometown of Pieve de Cadore. This, the Madonna and Nursing Child, donated by Titian at about 1564 and guaranteed at least to have come out his workshop, is where he painted himself in profile in the upper left-hand corner. Here Titian has quite distinctly pale gray/blue eyes which re-occur in other contemporary paintings of the master by other artists. The brown eyes are impossibility! This alone should finish the story. It is who cares and who looks.
How could such an enormously obvious detail have been missed? This by the tens thousands of thousands of art historians and art critics that have stood in front of the Allegory in the National Gallery of London and extolled its virtues, which of course are only visible to “experts” with that special extra sense. To us mere mortals it is a rather uninteresting curiosity.
Naturally, the painting could not even be a workshop production. His assistants would know the color of Titian’s eyes. Let’s suppose even if Titian was intoxicated out of his mind at the time he painted the painting (the only excuse I can think of), he would have sobered up at some point. Or his family, busy in the workshop, would have noticed the obvious!
THE REST OF THE STORY
After some research and a lot of pondering, I was lucky to come across the identity of the central face while visiting the Brera Gallery in Milan, where there is a self-portrait of a sometime assistant and great admirer of Titian, Palma Giovane (1544-1628). In the portrait, Palma is shown at work on a painting. It shows Palma in age some 10 or 15 years after Titian’s death, perhaps in his early thirties, but likely painted much, much later.
The Allegory was of course painted by Palma; it is a known fact that there were two Venetian painters that Palma idolized with slavish adulation; these were his great uncle Palma Vecchio’s (1480-1528) and Titian. No self-portrait exists of the painter Vecchio but it is known that he was blond. But just why would he paint them thus?
In the following notice, which may explain the Allegory’s intention, I quote M.R. Fisher, Titian’ s Assistants during the Later Years, published at Cambridge, Harvard University; New York and London, Garland:
In the SS. Giovanni i Paolo, the burial place of the artist, Palma had erected a large monument consisting of paintings and sculptured busts dedicated to Titian, Palma Vecchio and himself. In his own life time he had the busts carved and set into place & with the inscription “TITIAN VECELLIO I JACOPO PALMA SENIORI UNIOQUE AERAE PALMEO COMMUNI GLORIA”. It is obvious that Palma considered himself, Titian; and Palma Vecchio a sort of Venetian triumvirate in the arts.
And judging by the lion’s head under his own face, himself the lion! It is known that Palma had an enormous ego. To any logical thinking human being the connection should be obvious.
The left face definitely shows Titian in profile, as Palma remembered him at a very old age; the brown eyes are disconcerting and were probably of no great concern to Palma since it was only a symbolic representation. Obviously he should have recalled Titian’s eye color having worked for him, but come to think of it, I don’t remember the color of my own teacher’s eyes!
The identity of the right face becomes rather obvious and is in all certainty a representation of Palma. s great-uncle Palma Vecchio, who died rather young. Not only is the Allegory the representation of two important personalities in Palma’s life but he was painting these personalities in their own characteristic style: Titian in Titian’s so-called late style, himself in his own style, and Palma Vecchio in Palma Vecchio’s style!
And not including the strong possibility that the Allegory was painted at a much later date than the face of Palma indicates. Would you paint a painting for your grave memorial while still young? So considering what the Allegory was intended for, a grave monument, we must assume a date some ten or slightly more years before the painter Palma’s death in 1628. Around 1615 or thereabouts; and his face was probably taken from a much earlier self-portrait of Palma, or possibly the one portrayed here that must have belonged to the painter.
So taking into account the important notation that there were paintings involved in his memorial, to any simple mind it does not take very much imagination to guess at the original purpose of the so-called Allegory of Prudence, a grave monument. To art historians in search of glory, though, that is much too pedestrian a tale and they’d rather spin fancy fairy tales with no logical or justifiable base. What we are looking at is a myth logically-contrived misattribution, fancy tales spun by glory-seeking art-historians! So many words written and wasted, and so much fancy talk and explanations, all for nothing!
And think of all the tens of thousands of art-historians, art experts and students that have stood in front of the painting admiring it, but never looking at it properly. I hope I have shed a new light on this fine painting.
Svend Erik Hendriksen