Anatomy of a Masterpiece

Malcolm Storer Malcolm Storer

In an exclusive series of six, monthly, articles on painting, our art critic Malcolm Storer examines and dissects some of the supreme masterpieces of Western Art, scrutinising the artists who painted them, and why, when and where they were created.    


I want to begin the series with a work by a painter I consider to be the greatest who has ever lived, a supreme master who influenced the likes of Velázquez, Rembrandt and Rubens, an artist whose revolutionary technique went on to inspire modern British greats such as Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Jenny Saville.

Tiziano Vecellio — better known as Titian — was born in the late 15th century in the small mountain village of Cadore, 70 miles from Venice. And it was in Venice that gifted maestro began his training, serving his apprenticeship in the workshop of the early Renaissance pioneer Jacopo Bellini.

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian.

By 1522 Titian had established himself as one of the leading painters of his day. His fame was such that he soon came to the attention of the fabulously wealthy Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.

Alfonso commissioned Titian to paint a cycle of mythological paintings for his newly built Alabaster Rooms in the ducal palace. The greatest of these — Bacchus and Ariadne — is a work of profound genius that still resonates to this day, not only for the way it conveys light, emotion and movement, but for its richness of colour and virtuoso treatment of flesh.

Abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos — whose ship we can see departing on the far left of the painting — Ariadne waves helplessly to him from the cliff edge.

Suddenly there’s a commotion. Her gaze is pulled right by the arrival of Bacchus, the god of wine, and his noisy retinue of drunken revellers. Leaping from his chariot drawn by two cheetahs, Bacchus immediately falls in love with Ariadne and raises her to heaven.

The constellation Corona Borealis, Bacchus’s crowning gift to her, is shown in the sky directly above her head.

The figure of Bacchus forms the point of spear triangulating out from his followers. The very tip of that spear — his eyes — lock on to Arianne’s in a moment of ecstatic attraction

And this is what the painting is all about — love at first sight.

The theme is echoed by the intimate glance between the two cheaters, and also that of the grass-skirted follower brandishing the severed leg of a cow who flirts with the bare-breasted maiden on his right holding a tambourine.

Within this triangulated ‘spear’ is Titian’s gift to future painters — a manual on how to depict flesh in all its rich and varying forms.

Bacchus and Ariadne can be seen at The National Gallery. If ever you’re in London it’s well worth a visit. But beware, setting eyes on it for the first time you might, like me, experience love at first sight.

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