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One of the first of the cycle of paintings, Danaë tells the story of the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. She was shut up in a tower by her father as a means of preventing her from ever having a son.
The heirless king had been told by the oracle (fortune teller) that he would have a successor and that this child would be his daughter's son. Good news only in part as he was also told that this grandson would kill him.
Meanwhile Jupiter, an admirer of Danaë and immune to any barrier, reaches her via a skylight in the form of a shower of gold. She goes on to have their child, Perseus, the hero of another of the 'poesie'.
Image: Titian, 'Danaë', probably 1554–6. Wellington Collection, Apsley House © Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust
Danaë (or Danaë and the Shower of Gold) is a series of at least six versions of the same composition by Italian painter Titian and his workshop made between about 1544 and the 1560s. The scene is based on the mythological princess Danaë, as -very briefly- recounted by the Roman poet Ovid, and at greater length by Boccaccio. She was isolated in a bronze tower following a prophecy that her firstborn would eventually kill her father. Although aware of the consequences, Danaë was seduced and became pregnant by Zeus (in Roman mythology Jupiter), who, inflamed by lust, descended from Mount Olympus to seduce her in the form of a shower of gold.
Titian and his workshop produced at least six versions of the painting, which vary to degrees. The major surviving versions are in Naples, London, Madrid, Vienna, Chicago, and St. Petersburg. The voluptuous figure of Danaë, with legs half spread, hardly changes, and was probably traced from a studio drawing or version Her bed and its hangings are another constant. Other elements vary considerably; the first version, now in Naples, was painted between 1544–46, and is the only one with a figure of Cupid at the right, rather than an old woman catching the shower of gold. She is a different figure at each appearance, though the pose in the Hermitage follows the Prado version. The small dog resting at Danaë's side in the Prado and Chicago versions is generally absent.
The works influenced the compositions of many artists including Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck and Gustav Klimt, who all painted versions of the scene. Giorgio Vasari recounts a visit with Michelangelo to Titian's studio, where they saw the original in progress. Michelangelo praised Titian's use of colour in the Madrid painting, though later, in private, he was critical of Titian's draftsmanship.
Titian Rape of Europa
Jupiter, captivated by Europa, transforms himself into a beautiful bull and joins the herd of cows around her.
Europa approaches the bull and, finding it tame, winds flowers around its horns and jumps onto its back. The bull (aka Jupiter) leaps into the sea and carries her off. Europa clings on in terror, a flailing arm waving desperately at her companions on the beach.
Titian’s Rape of Europa, painted in Venice in the 1560s, is inspired by a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Infatuated with Europa, Jupiter—king of the gods—transforms himself into a beautiful white bull and joins a herd grazing near the seashore. Europa, close by with her companions, approaches the beautiful creature with hand outstretched. Finding him tame, she plays with the bull in a meadow and entwines flowers around his horns. When she climbs playfully on his back, the mischievous god seizes the opportunity and springs into the sea, spiriting away the target of his affections while she clings to him in terror.
Jupiter races across the ocean and Europa holds on by one horn. Gazing back over her shoulder toward the shoreline, she waves a red silk veil to attract attention. Europa’s companions respond with their own frantic signals (note the herd of cows still grazing to their left). Titian dramatizes her immediate danger of drowning by positioning in the foreground a menacing, scaly sea monster bristling with spines. Nearby a cupid chases after Europa on a dolphin. His pose mimics hers, perhaps poking fun at her plight. The forced union of Europa and Jupiter eventually led to a historic event: the birth of Minos, king of Crete and the Minoans, the first European civilization.
With the help of Bernard Berenson, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought Titian’s Rape of Europa from the Earl of Darnley in 1896, and it became the crown jewel of her museum’s growing collection. When the painting arrived in Boston, she wrote with delight to Berenson, “I am back here tonight . . . after a two days’ orgy. The orgy was drinking myself drunk with Europa and then sitting for hours in my Italian Garden at Brookline, thinking and dreaming about her.”