Portrait of a Lady in White
Tizian (c. 1488/90-1576) | Painter
unbekannt (c. 1488/90-1576) | Person(s) shown
This picture is enchantingly beautiful. But the question arises as to who this might be. At first glance, it looks like a portrait, and the ‘flag fan’ was one of the trendiest accessories in Venice. However, this painting does not represent any specific person, but rather feminine beauty itself. Consider Titian’s skill as a colourist. Here, he uses only the colour white, interspersed with accents of gold and red. The materials such as silk, mother-of-pearl and gold are extraordinarily sensuous.
For a long time, the ‘lady in white’ was thought to be Titian’s lover – and that’s how she was listed in the inventory of the collection in Modena in 1663. For Francesco Scannelli, an art critic at that time, this was one of Titian’s best works and, he noted, it was a ‘completely truthful picture of Titian’s lover’. In 1765, the first catalogue of the Royal Paintings Gallery in Dresden described the ‘lady in white’ as a ‘portrait of Titan’s mistress’. In 1826, over fifty years later, this classification was called into question. Twelve years afterwards, that reference was removed from the catalogue entirely.
With the development of art history as an academic subject in the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars started to research the mystery around this ‘lady in white’. The specialists in the field at that time believed this was actually a portrait of Titian’s daughter Lavinia. Certainly, Titian’s comment that the woman in the portrait was ‘his dearest and most valuable being’ would suggest a daughter more than a lover. For a time, experts even thought this portrait showed Lavinia as a recently married woman. However, our collection also has a Titian generally regarded as a portrait of Lavinia – and she bears no resemblance at all to the ‘lady in white’.
It was Hans Posse, director of the collection from 1910, who first rejected this attribution as erroneous, and gave the painting the new title of ‘Portrait of a Lady in White’. Finally, Charles Hope, a British art historian, put forward the idea that the ‘lady in white’ is actually Emilia, another of Titian’s daughters and probably illegitimate. But there is no documented evidence for any portraits of her we could compare with the ‘lady in white’.
So whoever the model was for this work, it seems quite likely that here Titian was presenting an ideal of beauty – the ‘bella donna veneziana’ – the beautiful Venetian lady. After all, Venetian art already had a tradition of depicting ideal beauty – an ideal introduced by Giorgione in the early sixteenth century and which rapidly became extremely popular in that city.
As this painting makes only too clear, the ‘ideal Venetian beauty’ was a member of the elite classes. She wore costly clothing and was adorned with precious jewels. And that’s just how Titian has staged his ‘lady in white’. Set against a diffuse dark background, she stands out vividly, with nothing to distract us from her.
Everything about her is beautifully aligned – the white pearls are perfectly coordinated with her magnificent dress of gleaming silk satin, while her golden jewellery and the extravagant flag fan in her hand match her hair. At that time, Venetian woman dyed their hair blond, so it had the colour of gold. The fan was also a distinctly luxurious accessory. The handle is gilded silver, with gold threads wound diagonally to create lozenge shapes set with precious stones.
Each detail in this painting tells of Titian’s outstanding painterly skills. It almost seems as if you can hear the rustle of this heavy material or the pearls are actually real. But Titian also had an ability to look below the surface, capturing something of the essence of the people he painted – and it was that which made him the masterly portrait artist commissioned to portray emperors, doges, princes, scholars and merchants.
- Material & Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
- c. 1561
- Inventory number
- Gal.-Nr. 170