Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22)

Experts, trying to decipher Titian's painting, Bacchus and Ariadne, have long hoped to identify his "source" in a literary text as if the artist was an illustrator of literature. Titian, we need to remember, had a visual mind and it was primarily through painting, not literature, that he tried to make sense of his existence. 

Thomas Puttfarken has noted that the figure of Ariadne, one of the principal protagonists in the story, is "remarkably off-center, close to the left-hand frame....Yet in the narrow space that is hers", he adds, "...there  are several details of narrative significance."1 By her left arm, for example, is the boat in the far distance carrying Theseus away while above her you can see the constellation of stars that Bacchus, through metamorphosis, will transform her into.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

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Other significant features near her, not noted before, have to do with the painting not the story. Her brightly-lit rear leg, for instance, has no shadow on the ground while her raised arm is lit from the "wrong" direction. Raised arms in themselves, as I showed in Titian's contemporaneous Assunta, are often the uplifted arms of "painters" painting the narrative.2 Here Ariadne stands to one side of her "canvas" where an artist might stand in a studio scene. To strengthen the association Titian signed the vase at her feet. Therefore, just as Goffen argued that all Titian's women are in some sense a "self-portrait", so is Ariadne in this painting.3

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Ariadne in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22)

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Now notice how the "two" leopards look at each other, the far one a mirror-image of the near. Its dark shadow with that glimpse of light on its muzzle is an exact rendition of the near leopard's "unseen" side. Just like the two heads in Titian's Fete Champetre, as I will soon show, a sheet of invisible mirror divides this painting and runs in front of the leopard's snout. The raised hand of Ariadne, it therefore seems, is placed against a pane of glass, touching and thus painting the mirror of reality in Titian's mind.4 The choice of Ariadne as the painter conveys the idea that Titian's mind is really feminine and thus fertile or, at the very least, androgynous.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Ariadne and leopards in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22)

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The truth often conveyed by great artists that reality, as we know it, is a mirror of our own minds is also conveyed by the billowing fabric of the "artist's arm". It has been turned in "her painting" into the sails of Theseus' ship near her other shoulder, its sails billowing in the opposite direction as a mirror of the artist. Many forms in art, this transformation  suggests, are metamorphoses of the artist's own self.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

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On even closer looking the sleeve and sails represent the two "eyes" of a veiled self-portrait looking to the left. The tip of Titian's nose can be seen in the oddly-shaped blue drapery in front of  her wrist. His mouth and beard, meanwhile, are even more loosely suggested in the folds below her arm, not specifically delineated.  Anyone familiar with how great masters practice visual metamorphosis should be able to see Titian's "face" here. I ask others to keep an open mind while looking at similar illusions in Leonardo's Hidden Faces, his Landscape and Cézanne's Large Bathers.5

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne
Center: Detail of Britto's engraving after Titian's lost Self-portrait
Right: Diagram of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne

Click image to enlarge.

There is, of course, much more to understand about this complex composition. This is only a start to set the stage. I should explain, though, that just as in similar paintings in which the studio and the painting have been fused, the entire scene takes place not in the studio nor in nature but in the artist's mind at the moment of the painting's own conception. In other words these artists did not paint exterior reality; they just used it to learn how to paint objects as if they were in nature; the scenes themselves, however, take place in the artist's mind because, whether religious or not, we observers can only find truth and wisdom (or that essence which some call God) inside our own mind. All else is an illusion.

Notes:

1. Thomas Puttfarken, Titian and Tragic Painting: Aristotle's Poetics and the Rise of the Modern Artist (New Haven: Yale University Press) 2005, p.132

2. See examples under the theme, Pointing and Touch

3. Goffen, Titian’s Women (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1997, pp. 8, 286 ; Cropper has also written that Titian thought of a beautiful woman as a ‘synecdoche for the beauty of painting itself’ “The Beauty of Woman: Problems in the Rhetoric of Renaissance Portraiture” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. M.W.Ferguson, M. Quilligan and N.J.Vickers (Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press) 1986, pp.176)

4. See note 2

5. Beyond the three entries cited, other examples can be found under the theme, Veiled Faces.

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