The story of Actaeon is told in the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. In Titian’s earlier Diana surprised by Actaeon, painted for King Philip II of Spain in 1556–9 and now jointly owned by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, Actaeon disturbs the goddess Diana and her nymphs at a secret bathing place.
Although never delivered to Philip, The Death of Actaeon is clearly its sequel: Actaeon flees and, stopping to drink at a stream, discovers from his reflection that Diana has turned him into a stag. Titian shows Actaeon in the process of transformation. At Diana’s order he is torn to death by his own hounds. The subject is rare in Italian art and Titian may never have seen another painting of it.
While conceived around 1559, The Death of Actaeon was mostly painted when Titian was in his mid-eighties. It may not be entirely finished and could be one of the pictures left in his studio at the time of his death.
In 1551, Titian began producing an ambitious series of large-scale mythological paintings for Prince Philip – later Philip II – of Spain inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses. Titian called these works ‘poesie’, as he considered them visual equivalents of poetry. During the Renaissance, the relative merits of painting, poetry and sculpture were the subject of intense debate among artists and theorists in Italy.
In Titian’s earlier Diana surprised by Actaeon, one of the poesie painted for Philip II in 1556–9, Actaeon disturbs Diana and her nymphs at their secret bathing place. Ovid relates how the goddess splashes water on Actaeon’s face and dares him to tell the world what he has seen. In The Death of Actaeon Titian has painted the sequel: Actaeon flees and, stopping to drink at a stream, discovers from his reflection that Diana has turned him into a stag. Titian shows Actaeon in the process of transformation, or metamorphosis – his body is still human but he has a stag’s head. Actaeon finds that he cannot speak and at Diana’s order is torn to death by his own hounds. The subject is rare in Italian art and Titian may never have seen another painting of it.
This is probably the picture Titian referred to in a letter of June 1559 to Philip II, in which he says he hopes to finish two paintings he has started, one of which is described as ‘Actaeon mauled by his hounds’. In fact parts of the work may date from the mid-1560s, even if most of what we see probably dates from the early 1570s. Titian started The Death of Actaeon when he was in his seventies, was still working on it in his mid-eighties, and it is possible that it was in Titian’s studio at the time of his death in 1576. It was never sent to Spain.
The question of whether the painting was completed has been much debated. Although Titian’s materials in the second part of his career remained essentially the same, the ways in which he used them underwent a considerable change, particularly in his very last years. He used a much bolder and freer technique, and fully employed the textures of paint and canvas, leaving various parts of his paintings in different states of finish, as we see here.
In other late paintings Titian added scumbled touches of deep rose and blue, sometimes applied with his fingers, and it is tempting to think that he might have wanted to do the same here. But pigment change in the sky, Diana’s dress and other places as well as the effect of yellowed varnish make the painting seem more monochromatic than it originally was. It is possible that Titian would have wished to flesh out further the lower body of Actaeon, or add a string to Diana’s bow, but that is far from certain, since in other late paintings he seems to have been happy to leave such details unresolved. The explosion of yellow paint in the foreground, which so effectively describes a bush, is typical of his expressive touch and sense of variable finish at this stage in his career. It is hard to imagine how anything could have been added to it to make it appear more finished in the traditional sense.
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