Carusel Tours
25 July 2020

Hermitage Highlights. Danae by Titian and Rembrandt - The Same Subject and Two Different Fates

Danae by Rembrandt Hermitage
Danae by Rembrandt in the Hermitage

Do you believe in the fate of paintings? I do.

Today I will tell you about the masterpieces of two great artists devoted to the myth about Danae. Danae Paintings by Titian and Rembrandt belong to "the gold reserve" of the European art and two of them are in the collection of the Hermitage Museum.

Both Titian and Rembrandt were considered the Kings among artists in their time and to this day they continue to be the best of the best and do not require special presentation.

Although we may think that we know almost everything about the great masters of the past, in reality they never cease to surprise us, as we are constantly discovering new things about their lives and works. Perhaps that is why we call them geniuses - they are not from the past, they are from today and they are about the future.

Danae Greek Vase
Myth about Danae

Let me remind you the myth about Danae shortly.

Danae was a Greek princess, the daughter of King Acrisius of Agros and Eurydice. An oracle predicted to Acrisius that he would be killed by his grandson. And so that beautiful Danae could not have children, Acrisius locked her in an underground cell or a bronze tower together with a maid. But this did not help him avoid his fate.

Zeus fell in love with Danae and visited her in the form of golden rain. As the result of this encounter, Perseus was born. Upon meeting him, angry Acrisius threw Danae with the child into the sea in a wooden chest, but thanks to the help of the gods they survived.

Later, after performing feats like rescuing from Andromeda and killing Medusa, Perseus fulfilled the oracle's prophecy and killed his grandfather with the disc accidentally during the sports games.

The story of Danae was very popular and for centuries inspired European painters. The first examples of the presentation of this subject in art can be found in the Greek vases of red figures from the 5th century BC.

The versions of Titian and Rembrandt are the most famous. Both masters depict the moment of the visit of Zeus in their works. Although these paintings have similar iconography and they are indisputable masterpieces, they have different stories to tell us.
Portrait of Pierre Crozat
Portrait of Pierre Crozat

Crozat Collection

Both Danae pictures in the Hermitage come from the famous collection of Pierre Crozat and they arrived to Russia from France in the same boat in 1772, when Catherine the Great bought works of art for the recently founded Hermitage Museum.

Crozat Collection was a private collection of works of art, founded by Pierre Crozat, the famous financier and treasurer from France, and the great art lover. Contemporaries considered it to be the most important private collection due to the large number of treasures and various rarities that it contained. Crozat's mansion was a genuine museum, that contained more than 400 paintings from different schools, an enormous number of drawings, engravings, antiques, porcelain, carved stones, and a rich library.

In addition to collecting art, Pierre Crozat was a patron of many artists of his time, such as Antoine Watteau and Charles de La Fosse. After Mr. Crozat's death his collection was divided between his nephews who augmented it.

When Louis Antoine Crozat died, Denis Didro, who was Catherine II's pen pal and adviser, along with the writer Frederick Melchior Grimm and the Russian ambassador to France, Prince Dmitri Golitsin, began preparing an agreement with the heirs, and after a year and a half of negotiations, in 1772 the entire collection was purchased on behalf of the Russian Empress for her newly established museum.

The acquired collection included 5 paintings by Raphael, the works by Michelangelo and Giorgione, 15 paintings by Rubens, 7 paintings by Rembrandt, 10 paintings by Titian and among them were two Danaes. This important purchase caused a scandal in France, but enriched the Hermitage with outstanding works of great masters.

The oldest Danae is that of Titian, and we are going to start with this incarnation of the Greek beauty, bearing in mind that Rembrandt knew the work of the Italian master and appreciated it.
Titian Room in the Hermitage
Titian Room in the Hermitage

Titian and His Danaes

Just in case, let me remind you about the major events in the life of an Italian genius:

Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio, known as Titian, is one of the most celebrated painters of the Italian Renaissance and the famous representative of the Venetian school. Although he came from the noble family, he had such a passion for painting that his parents let him study it and thus develop his undeniable talent.

We don't know the exact date of his birth, but we do know that he had a long and very successful life. Born at the end of the 15th century, he lived for around 80-90 years and died of the plague, for that time it was an extraordinary life!

Now we remember him along with such Italian geniuses of art as Michelangelo, Rafael and Leonardo da Vinci. The student of Bellini and Giorgione, Titian quickly became famous as a painter and especially as an excellent portraitist. He was not even thirty when he was recognized as the best painter in Venice. He was hired by cardinals and popes, dukes and kings. His contemporaries called him the Divine Titian and recognized him as "the sun among the stars", in homage to the final line of Paradise from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

His art went through different stages during his long career, his style changed a lot and now some scientists have trouble recognizing that his first works and those from his later career had been painted by the same hand.

In any case, all his works are characterized by the excellent use of bright and vivid colours. If he was called the "painter of kings and the king of painters" we can say that he was undoubtedly the master of colours.

The Danae from the Hermitage belongs to the advanced period of Titian, at that stage he had already found his only colourful solution that characterized his best works and made him world famous. The palette of his paintings consisted of very fine tones, in all the main and subordinate colours he distinguished the subtle nuances very carefully and from them he formed the figures with their characteristic features and emotions.

I have to mention that the subject of Danae interested Titian a lot and we currently know at least 5 Danaes painted by his hand! Titian and his workshop used to repeat the most successful subjects, it was a habitual practice for the famous masters of that time. All his versions of Danae, now exhibited in various museums, have notable differences.
Sleeping Venus in Old Masters Gallery, Dresden
Sleeping Venus in Old Masters Gallery, Dresden

Probably Titian liked this subject so much not only because of its popularity, but because of his artistic tasks. In this series of paintings, he developed the composition with a nude female figure. He began to study this iconographic type when finishing the Venus of Dresden, the work of his late friend and teacher Giorgione. Then he repeated it in the Venus of Urbino and returned to it again with the Danae series, creating his own style of the presentation of nude figures.

The Sleeping Venus or Venus of Dresden is Giorgione's latest creation, made in 1510. It depicts a naked young woman, asleep amidst an ideal Italian landscape. The work was left unfinished after Giorgione's death, and it was later completed by Titian. Giorgione painted the woman and a rock in the landscape and Titian finished the landscape, painted the sky, the wardrobe in the first plan and Cupid at the foot of Venus that we cannot see now without the X-rays. The presentation of a nude figure outdoors was a revolutionary act and it is considered by some people as the starting point for the modern art.
Danae from National Capodimonte Museum, Naples
Danae from National Capodimonte Museum, Naples

The first version of Danae was created in 1544-1545 during the painter's stay in Rome. Now it belongs to the collection of the National Capodimonte Museum in Naples.

It was painted for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III and a great admirer of Titian's talent. Titian's talent was already so appreciated that the city of Rome presented him with citizenship, before him only Michelangelo received such an honor.

The original version is the only one that has the figure of Cupid in its composition and it is located in the spot where in later versions an old servant collecting the golden rain coins would be depicted. Another feature that you won't find in the next versions is the classic column in the background that will later be replaced by the red curtain.

Compared to other versions, the nude figure in the first painting is more covered by the white cloth, perhaps because it was the portrait of the cardinal's mistress, Angela. Although it was created for private rooms and featured woman as a mythological character, the painting was quite frivolous and daring.

From Giorgio Vassari's memories we know about Michelangelo's visit to Titian's studio in the Vatican's Belvedere, where the Great Florentine saw the first version of Danae in process. He praised the Venetian painter's use of colours, but later criticized his understanding of the "solid principles" of drawing and composition. We cannot corroborate Vassari's words and check whether it was true or yet another historical anecdote, but we know that for him and very likely for Michelangelo too, design and drawing were always fundamental in art while colour had the secondary meaning.

They also say that Michelangelo predicted the large number of Danae's replicas joking that Titian would not avoid them, because many wealthy art lovers would commission them.
Danae from Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London
Danae from Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London

Two following versions that are now part of the Wellington Collection in London (1553?) and the Prado Museum in Madrid (1565) were created for the Kings of Spain. The first was painted for Felipe II, at that time the heir to the throne of Spain, who hired Titian to create the series of Poems - 6 paintings on mythological themes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. With these paintings, Titian developed an idea of presenting a female body bathed in the sun and the myth about Danae suited him perfectly.

The Relations between Titian and the Spanish royal family were very intense. For them Titian painted the portraits of Carlos V and his sons, Spanish nobility, mythological and historical pictures. The works of the Venetian painter, who was also called "the best in Spain", became Habsburg's obsession. The painter was presented with the Spanish noble title and obtained a special pension from the king, but he refused to stay in Spain although he continued to be the first painter of the kings.
There is an anecdote that one day when Titian made a portrait of Carlos V in his studio, he dropped a brush on the floor, and Carlos V did not hesitate to pick it up and return it to the artist with a smile. It was unbelievable for the social protocol of the time. And to break the long pause of the courtiers the king said: "Titian deserves that Caesar serves him, because when the centuries pass, no one will remember us while his paintings pass into eternity and will be immortal."
In the version painted for Felipe II, Cupid has already been replaced by an old woman whose figure greatly enriched the painting, adding the contrasts: the beauty of youth versus the ugliness of old, the naked female body against the dressed figure.

Interestingly, the painting of Philip II of Spain now belongs to the Wellington Collection (Apsley House). How did it get there?

For centuries, up until the War of Independence of the 19th century, Danae Receiving the Golden Rain belonged to the royal family of Spain and it was exhibited in the Alcazar along with other paintings of the Poems Series and later in the Buen Retiro Palace.

The painting was captured by the English army in the Battle of Vitoria with the forces of Josep Bonaparte who was proclaimed the King of Spain by his brother Napoleon. Josep Bonaparte lost the war and after that he fled Madrid with the baggage of documents and some 200 paintings. When King Ferdinand VII was restored in power, Duke of Wellington offered to return these works of art back to Spain, but the king informed him that he could leave them as the gift.

But if the version of Felipe II is now in London, which Danae is now on display in the Prado Museum?
Danae from the Prado Museum, Madrid
Danae from the Prado Museum, Madrid

In Prado, we see Titian's version of 1565, with less elaborate texture, that was brought to Spain from Genoa by Diego Velázquez from his trip to Italy (1629). It is curious to see how the paths of the great painters at times cross.

Probably, the great Sevillian painter decided to decorate two royal palaces with Titian's Danae, Venus and Adonis. The version brought from Genoa was moved to the Alcazar of Madrid and the version of Felipe II, worse preserved at that time, was transferred to the Buen Retiro Palace and from there it was stolen by José Bonaparte and later appeared in London.

The Danae of Wellington was long believed to be a copy. It was restored and opened to the public for the first time only in 2015.

Some art experts consider the Prado's Danae with the figure of a dog "the most sensual of all Titian's female nudes ... transmits a dark erotic charge that makes all previous reclining nudes ... look innocent in comparison" (Sheila Hale in Titian: His life). Furthermore, the dog featured in this painting can be considered as the allegory of lust.

Now Danae of Prado is shown in the same room with Venus and Adonis as was intended by Titian herself.
Danae from the Hermitage Collection Titian
Danae from the Hermitage Collection

Hermitage's Danae

It is likely, that the Hermitage version (1553-1554) as well as that of Vienna (1564) were made in the painter's workshop with the significant participation of the Master himself.

In these versions, the image of Zeus appears in the clouds and he looks at Danae from above. Probably, the Prado's painting also had the image of Zeus on top, but the canvas was cut later. And that confirms that the work in the Hermitage is a transitory version, in which Titian continued investigating the subject and modifying the composition.

The evolution of Titian's art that we can see in Danae's series was very impressive for his contemporaries and artists of subsequent epochs, such as the impressionists who appreciated him for the vivid and soft colour. Titian was always revered as a painter, but if the art of his mature years was adored above all by Velazquez, Rembrandt and Goya, his later works were re-invented by Impressionists, when fashion and style changed considerably.
Rembrandt's Room in the Hermitage Museum
Rembrandt's Room in the Hermitage Museum

Danae by Rembrandt

And now I will tell you about another Danae in the Hermitage Collection, created in the 17th century by the other magician of the classical art, the master of shadow and light, the great Dutchman, Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn. The story of his Danae is not as complicated as that of Titian's multiple versions of Danae, but no less fascinating, tragic and happy at the same time.

If in Titian's case we have at least 5 replicas, Rembrandt created only one but he combined 2 important women of his life in just one image.

Danae of Rembrandt, although she is the mythological figure, is not a goddess or princess from fairy tales, but a real woman of flesh and bones, like all of us. But before I tell you the story of the painting, let me write a little bit about its creator, who is very famous and very unknown at the same time. It seems that we know more about the romantic myth of Rembrandt, invented during the 18th-19th centuries, than about his real life.

Rembrandt's life and artistic heritage began to be studied in detail only in the 19th century, so until now we still have many doubts and legends about it. Although his works had always been appreciated, many facts of his life had been forgotten with time. The titles of his paintings and even his name were mixed up.

In the Hermitage there are some paintings by Rembrandt such as "Saskia as Flora" or "The Prodigal Son" in the 18th century frames, which have the inscriptions of the painter's name - P. Rembrandt. At that time, they believed that Rembrandt was his last name that he used to sign his paintings and in all the catalogues they called him Paul Rembrandt. In fact, Rembrandt began to use his name as a signature in 1632, before that he used a signature composed of his initials, just like all the other painters of that time. By using his first name, he put himself in line with such great painters of the past as Leonardo, Miquel Angelo, Raphael and Titian.
Saskia as Flora by Rembrandt Hermitage Collection
Saskia as Flora from the Hermitage Collection

We know for sure that Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, known as Rembrandt, was born in Leiden in the Netherlands on 15.07.1606 in the wealthy family of a successful miller. He received basic education and attended Leiden University. He was not an anxious student and preferred to study painting in the studio of the history painter Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg. Rembrandt continued his art studies with Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam for 6 months.

When Rembrandt was only 18 he already established his own studio in Leiden where he worked and taught painting. At the end of 1631, Rembrandt became the most famous Dutch painter and he moved to Amsterdam, one of the richest cities in the world at that time. The success of the young artist was growing rapidly and Rembrandt gained fame as an exceptional portraitist.

In 1634 Rembrandt married the cousin of respected art dealer Hendrik van Uylenburg. Saskia became the painter's true muse and the future role model for Danae and other exceptional female images. That same year Rembrandt joined the Society of Painters.

It seemed that life was treating Rembrandt well! The happy young couple bought the house, Rembrandt gained extraordinary fame, his portraits and paintings cost a small fortune, he gathered an extraordinary collection of works of art and peculiarities that he used for his paintings. The only thing that overshadowed their lives was the lack of children who were dying at birth. In 1641, the boy Titus was born and he finally survived, but shortly after giving the birth to him Saskia died. So, the other chapter in Rembrandt's life begins...

Danae by Rembrandt from the Hermitage Collection
Danae by Rembrandt from the Hermitage Collection

Danae was created in 1636 in Rembrandt's golden age and became one of his most significant works on Greek myths. It is the painting that the artist created to please himself, it was meant to be kept in his house, not for sale. It stayed with Rembrandt until 1656 when he was declared bankrupt and Danae was sold at an auction. It changed several owners before it became the part of the Crozat Collection, where it stayed for a fairly long period.

It is difficult to understand how it was possible that the famous painter whose paintings and engravings were worth a fortune went bankrupt. In reality, there were many reasons, from the general economic situation in the Netherlands at that time, to the expenses of Rembrandt - art collector, who bought many works and rarities. The main reason was that Rembrandt was unable to repay the loan, that he took to buy his house, on time. In this building Rembrandt Museum is now located.

Rembrandt, unlike his Italian predecessor, does not depict the time of Zeus' visit, but, more likely, the moments of anticipation. Dutch artist is not so interested in the myth, he interprets it very freely, for him it is just an opportunity to tell us his love story. We do not see either the god or the golden rain, it is replaced with a ray of light that fills the bedroom and caress the body of Danae. The composition resembles a take from the film, when the two protagonists see the third person, but we, the spectators, do not see him. Probably Rembrandt could have been a good film director, all his paintings are living stories and they evolve in the space of his canvases and outside. By looking at them we can always reinvent the stories.

For Rembrandt this is the story of pure love, we cannot call his Danae as erotic, beautiful and desired as Titian's. The love of Danae of the Dutch master is a divine miracle, reinforced by the presence of Cupid at the head of the bed, the symbol of chastity. Rembrandt's Danae is an emotional woman, she is in love and she is curious, she is excited about what is happening to her and she is afraid of it at the same time. This spectrum of feelings is reinforced by the gesture of the woman's hand.

Just as in Titian's painting, in Rembrandt's work we can see an old maid, she is watching Danae but she does not collect the gold from the rain. We do not see the rain in the painting and for this reason historians debated the subject of the painting, they suggested that it could be Hagar, Rachel, Sarah or Delilah ...

Now, thanks to the restoration and the x-rays we know that there was rain in the first version that was later replaced by light, and we have no doubts about the plot – it is Danae. After this detailed study of the painting we can unravel many its enigmas and the very process of its creation.

However, the large-scale restoration happened under very sad circumstances and it is time to tell you the tragic part of the story of beautiful Danae, probably, the most tragic in the history of art!
Danae by Rembrandt before the restoration
On June 15, 1985, sulfuric acid was thrown on the painting and it was cracked with a knife. A vandal entered the Hermitage among millions of regular visitors. As they say, in Rembrandt's room he asked the curator "What was the most valuable painting in the room?" And when they showed him Danae, he committed his terrible act!

The offender was Bronius Maigys, a 48-year-old Lithuanian. At first, he declared that he had committed an act of vandalism in protest for the entry of the Soviet army into Lithuania in 1940. Then he confessed that he wanted to draw attention to himself. Maygis was diagnosed with mental illness (slow schizophrenia) and sent to a psychiatric hospital in Chernyakhovsk, where he spent 6 years, then he got to a similar institution in Lithuania, from where he was released shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The restoration of the painting began on the same day of the tragic entrant and lasted for 12 years. The country's best restorers, chemists, and Rembrandt specialists examined the restoration options. Many thought that Rembrandt's work was lost forever and there was nothing to do. They determined that almost 30% of the painting in the central part was lost!

Scientists argued whether they should keep the painting as it is or restore it almost by making a copy. As a result, they decided to restore the losses, eliminate the traces of the acid reaction, preserving Rembrandt's painting as much as possible.

In order to restore Danae, they created the appropriate weather conditions and special light. First, they strengthened the surface of the painting, removing the traces of the acid reaction and moving it on a new duplicate canvas. The next step was to recreate the losses by using the author's painting technique.

One of the important conditions for the restoration was the possibility of reverting to the original Rembrandt version without the coat of varnish. The careful restoration revealed many enigmas of Rembrandt's Danae.
Danae by Rembrandt during restoration
During the restoration it was confirmed that Rembrandt made many changes to the painting that modified the interpretation of the original story.

Just a few of them:

First, it was confirmed that it was the story of Danae. The first model was Rembrandt's beloved Saskia, but then he painted the face again, changed the curves of the body and the gesture of the left hand. The second model was Geertje Dircx, the nursemaid of Rembrandt's son and the artist's civil wife, who he lived with after Saskia's death from tuberculosis. Thus, Rembrandt united both women of his life in a work. I think we can call Danae the portrait of his muse.

The gesture of the hand was initially the gesture of the invitation, not of farewell as today.

Do you remember the Cupid with tied hands? In the first version, he laughed at everything that happened and today we can see him crying about Danae's short love and her future destiny.

So, Rembrandt did change significantly the initial idea of his work throughout his lifetime.

Although now it is not the Danae that arrived at the museum in 1772, what the Russian restorers did is a true miracle.

Since October 14, 1997 the painting has been exhibited in the Rembrandt's Room on the second floor of the New Hermitage building. It is under the constant supervision of restorers and art historians. It has been protected by armoured glass to help it avoid other vandal attacks.
Danae by Rembrandt during restoration
We all hope that Danae's future destiny will be happy! And that other Rembrandt's secrets will be discovered under more pleasant circumstances.

The collection of Rembrandt's works in the Hermitage is one of the largest in the world. It has 23 paintings by Rembrandt, including his final work, some of his engravings and also a good collection of the works of his students and followers. Of course, an artist as brilliant as Rembrandt had many of them, but no one as great as him.

I do not ask you what is your favourite Danae, it is impossible to compare masterpieces like these, but if you are interested in the history of the Rembrandt's Collection in the Hermitage or any other works in the main museum of our country, ask me and I will share with you more stories, there are many of them that are surprising, sad and happy.

Do not forget to check our Hermitage with Experts Tour and our other art tours if you are visiting St. Petersburg!

Drop us a line if you have some special preferences and you want us to design a special art tour for you!

Text Karina Matveeva
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