Taking a Look at Diana and Actaeon by Titian
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Another painting from the National Gallery...can you tell I'm missing it? But with the latest news, let's keep our fingers crossed that it won't be too long until it reopens its doors..
I'm sure many of you recognise this painting, and perhaps know a little about the story it portrays. Diana and Actaeon (1556-9) was painted by the Venetian artist Titian and is today considered one of his greatest works.
We see Actaeon, the young man on the left of the painting, as he draws back the pinky/red curtain to reveal a group of naked women bathing. He has been separated from his friends whilst out hunting, you can see his arrows on his back, and a dog by his feet, when he accidentally stumbles upon Diana the chaste goddess of the hunt and her nymphs. You can see the shock on his face as he interrupts the women who have been discovered completely off guard, and he raises both hands, almost as a way of defending himself, half aware of his deadly fate that will fall upon him. You can really get a sense of movement as the chaos enfolds in front of out very eyes. Diana tried to cover herself with the help of her attendant, other nymphs haven't even realised they have been discovered.
On the right of the painting, instantly drawing our attention is Diana - she's slightly further forward than the rest of the women and slightly larger. She almost appears illuminated with her vibrant pale skin.
And just look at that scowl! Her eyes are so full of evil, already plotting the revenge she's got in store for poor Actaeon. But for me, look at her lips, although you can barely see them, it appear to me that she's smirking...it's as if she knew this would happen, perhaps part of her has quite liked being discovered by this young innocent man.
Looking around at the faces of the rest of the women, this seems to be true as well. The one nearest Actaeon has instantly looked at Diana to see how she will react. Two more look over to him and appear to be quite excited by his arrival, a little coy at being found in a state of undress it would seem.
It's a typically Baroque piece of art and it's easy to see why it is held in such high regard (it was bought for £50 million in 2008). It's full of drama, suspense, movement, extreme light, intense colour and dynamic brushwork. And, like much of the art being produced at the time, it's based on mythology. I mentioned the way Actaeon appears on the scene totally out of the blue, how he raises his hands in defence, and how he sweeps that curtain to the side, almost as if he's entering onto a stage. The slight angle of the bathing platform some of the nymphs sit on also adds to the sense of movement and unease.
And so the story continues. The outraged Diana transforms Actaeon into a stag as he flees from the scene, and his own hunting dogs track him down and kill him. Although this is the start of the tale, we can see poor Actaeons future, Titian has included a few clues of the outcome. If you look at the top of the pillar behind the woman who dries Dianas' feet there's a stags skull, and the skins of Diana's former pray hang in trees above her. And in-between the last column on the right and the trees there is a tiny depiction of the huntress chasing a stag.
Interestingly, this painting is jointly owned by the National Gallery in London and the National Galleries in Scotland, so do make sure to check where it's hanging! But fear not, the National Gallery has another very different depiction by Titian of the tale, with The Death of Actaeon. And do make sure you seek out his wonderful Bacchus and Ariadne, which I wrote about on a previous blog post here.
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Heard in London