Titian’s 'Portrait of a Lady in White,' c. 1561, on loan from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

A beguiling young woman, in white satin gown, bejeweled with gold, precious stones and pearls, stops fanning herself with a ventuolo for a moment to catch our gaze. She is spotlighted, and the intensity of the illumination is reflected in her hair, the sheen of the fabric of her dress and the fervent flush of her cheeks and lips. Her warm brown eyes offset her opalescent skin and gown and echo the dark terracotta of the mottled background. Her image could almost be seen as a monochromatic impression, save for the punctuation of her evocative red lips, with that demure smile.

Interpretations of this inscrutable picture, generously on loan from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, were voiced as early as 100 years after Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, c. 1488–1576) executed it, and uncertainty about the sitter’s identity remains. Is this a portrait of Titian’s daughter Lavinia, his illegitimate daughter Emilia, or might she be the artist’s mistress? Should it not be considered a traditional portrait, but rather an idealized image depicting the very essence of the beauty and spirit of Venetian women?

Archival documents give us some clues, but no answers. In 1561, Titian himself referred to this painting in a letter to Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara (1533–1597), saying that the image represented someone very dear to him, “the most precious being” in his life. In an earlier letter to Philip II of Spain, an avid collector of Titian’s work, the artist referred to another version of the painting (now lost), calling the sitter “the absolute mistress of my soul.” Based on these words, the painting was catalogued as early as 1663 in the Este collection as “Titian’s mistress.” Over the centuries, art historians and biographers have speculated on the subject’s identity, but to this day we cannot be certain who this mysterious beauty might be. SHOW MORE

Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, a small medieval town just south of the Dolomite mountains, about 70 miles south of the Austrian border, and the same distance north of Venice. He arrived in Venice as a child apprentice, along with his brother Francesco, who was also a painter. Titian became in a short time one of the few “foreign” artists there; he established himself as a premier painter to the nobility, church and unique oligarchic republic. His use of exuberant color and brilliant light made him a much sought-after master painter, draftsman and printmaker. He was apprenticed to both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, worked alongside Giorgione and managed to borrow from these artists to create his own inimitable style. His influence spread across Italy to France and Spain, and further to northern Europe, where commissions flowed from not only elite collectors but also popes, princes, emperors and kings.

Portrait of a Lady in White was known and copied by Titian’s contemporaries and later artists, as can be seen in an existing version by Rubens (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) and a sketch by Van Dyke (Chatsworth, collection of the Duke of Devonshire). His work was greatly admired by the first owner of this painting, Alfonso II d’Este. King Augustus III of Poland and Elector of Saxony (1696–1763) purchased the painting directly from the Este collection in Modena in 1746, and it has remained in the Dresden collections since that time. SHOW LESS