I should have noted this before, but at the moment a small painting by Titian, The Triumph of Love, showing Cupid surfing the back of a lion, is on view at the National Gallery in London. Although the painting has been known for a long time, it has only recently emerged from the private collection in which it was held and acquired by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Restored at the National Gallery by Jill Dunkerton, it will remain on view there until 20 September when it will go back to Oxford.

It is an allegory of love conquering all–Amor Vincit Omnia–and was originally painted as a timpanum, a cover for another painting. It is traceable all the way back to its original owner, the Venetian patrician and collector Gabriele Vendramin, who was a friend of Titian’s and was painted along with his sons by the master in the great canvas in the National Gallery. It was originally of square format and covered a portrait of a lady, probably a generic beauty rather than an actual person, for which it provided an edifying overture.

It’s a delightful, smallish painting, largely if not fully autograph. It is closely comparable–not the least in its underdrawing, about which more in a bit–to the aforementioned Vendramin Family Portrait of the early to mid-1540s and well as the Naples Danaë (c. 1544-46), making a date sometime in mid-1540s fairly certain.

It might seem surprising that Titian himself would execute such a minor work for a collection for which his assistants also did a lot of work, but this is entirely typical of the master who often seems to have focused on the work that interested him, rather than adhering to hierarchical notions of ‘importance’ when it came to collaborating with his assistants at this stage of his career. He would for example often leave it to them to do most of the work on the figures in a painting after which he would add a few final flourishes and paint the landscape behind them in magisterially evocative broad strokes (for examples of this, I’ve previously written about the Edelman St. Sebastian and the Ascoli Stigmatisation of St. Francis). In the present painting, Cupid’s warmly luminous and quivering flesh is pure Titian, for example, as is the mistily evoked prospect of a Venice-like city, reflecting hazily in the waters, in the background.

Something else I found interesting, when I had the chance to view up close the National Gallery’s infrared reflectograph of the canvas earlier this year, was the underdrawing–apparently initially executed in charcoal and subsequently expanded upon with the tip of the paintbrush. It is loose and bubbly and entirely in keeping with what we know of Titian’s approach to initial lay-in on the canvas–as mentioned, such lay-ins are visible, even to the naked eyed, in the Vendramin Portrait. It reminded me of the swift, curvy modelling of contours in a drawing in Lille, which is connected to Titian’s great, lost St. Peter Martyr altarpiece (c. 1525-1530). This drawing has always seemed problematic to me, combining as it does rough, powerful sketches of the martyrdom itself at the bottom with airier, more fanciful ones of the small angels–putti–that float above the scene in the final painting.

While the former look a lot like some of Titian’s secure pen sketches, primarily the Frankfurt St. Sebastian (c. 1519), they seem hard to reconcilable with those of the putti, at least if they are supposed to be by Titian. Many scholars have, consequently, been skeptical of the attribution of this drawing to the master, preferring instead to see in it the work of a follower, possibly improvising on the basis of the finished altarpiece. The underdrawing of the Triumph of Love, however, seems sufficiently reminiscent of the rendering of the putti that the attribution of the Lille sketch should perhaps be reconsidered.

I realise the IR image here isn’t very clear–you’ll have to trust me that it’s clearer when seen in high resolution–but check the curvy marks denoting the initial position of Cupid’s curly head or the bubbly linework underlying the contours of his chest. for a better image, and much more information, please seek out the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine (vol. CLI, Aug. 2009), in which curator at the Ashmolean, Catherine Whistler lays out the history of the painting and its possible sources with exemplary thoroughness and clarity.