February is the month of snowdrops and early daffodils. While spring is not yet here the days are getting longer and the sun brighter, preparing us for the end of winter. So a painting celebrating brighter days seemed appropriate to me. It is also a long time since I have visited London. Last week I went to the National Gallery for the first time in nearly two years.
Bacchus and Ariadne, by Titian, is one of the great treasures of the National collection and is my choice for February. While not meeting the exacting standards of current correctness of the current time, the story still remains a fascinating greek myth. The beautiful Ariadne has been abandoned by her lover, Theseus, seen leaving in the ship above her shoulder. He has left her, abandoned, on the island of Nexos. She is at the mercy of Bacchus and his band of revellers and wild and mythical beasts. She is fearful of the god but, falling in love, he rewards her by throwing her crown into the sky, offering her the universe. This act is celebrated in the constellation of the Norther Crown, seen in the top left shining brightly in the daylight.
Titian painted this huge masterpiece in the sixteenth century as part of a cycle of mythological scenes for a private room of the Duke of Ferrara and can be seen around the great galleries of the world such Washington and Madrid. The story comes from the poets Ovid and Cantallus.
The painting is full of masterly skills with the heroes dominating the left side, and the extras on the right. The sky and dresses in rich ultramarine reveal the wealth of the patron, using the pigment that was more expensive than gold. Another colour that is worth consideration is the pale green of the discarded clothing in the foreground. Trace this shade diagonally upwards through the fields into the distant town. Titian emphasises all these diagonals to lead the viewer into the depth of the painting. The right hand side is in shadow to emphasise the moment of capture with Bacchus stealing Ariadne’s love. But in these shadows are examples of Titian’s wonderful mastery of figure and colour. Look at the Cheetahs pulling the chariot of Bacchus. Titian has given them character like the modern Disney artists. What are they thinking as they witness the abduction, leading the great bacchanalian procession!
When you go to the National Gallery don’t try to look at too much, but concentrate on just a few paintings and enjoy them. This great Titian masterpiece is not a bad place to start!