My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Monday, March 11, 2019

Titian: Woman in White

Titian: The Woman in White

In February on our annual winter visit to California, we visited the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena to view its current exhibition of Titian’s magnificent portrait, The Woman in White, on loan from its home in Dresden. The painting was given pride of place in a large room filled with other Old Masters from the Norton Simon’s permanent collection

The Museum’s notes indicated that in a 1561 letter Titian claimed that the young woman depicted was “the mistress of his soul.” Later, commentators took these words to mean that the young woman was Titian’s mistress even though the artist would have been in his seventies at the time. Others speculate that the woman could be one of Titian’s daughters, Emilia or Lavinia.

Whoever is depicted, the painting remains a striking portrait of a young woman in a beautiful white gown with elegant jewelry that includes a ring that could be a wedding band. She also holds a fan that is attached to a kind of chain around her waist. More than the clothing and accessories, it was the eyes and face of the woman that held my attention as I stood in front of the painting.

The young woman was looking directly at me. When I moved to the left, her eyes continued to look at me. The look on her face even seemed to change. The same thing happened when I moved to the right. She continued to look at me. If you’re reading this on a desktop, just move your chair and look at the image from left and right. If you’re using a handheld device, just hold it away from you first with your left hand, and then with your right to observe the effect.

Actually, I even walked a semi-circle from one side of the large room to the other, and the woman’s eyes followed me all the way. In traditional paintings, the viewer observes the subject but in this painting the woman observes the viewer. The tables have been turned.

I am not a student of female portraiture and I can’t imagine that I am the only one to observe this phenomenon. I do recall that while on a tour of the Renaissance collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, a docent pointed out that it was considered indecent in the early days of the Renaissance to portray a living woman in a painting. The earliest portraits only dared to portray them in profile. Eventually, the face might be turned in a 45- degree angle with the woman still looking off to the side. Even when the full face would be exposed the eyes would still be averted from the viewer. She would not make eye contact with the viewer. 

Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a Woman

The aversion of the eyes might just represent female modesty but I suspect that male sensitivity might have been at work. Could it be that back then men did not want other men looking at their women? Could that be the reason why a woman’s eyes are averted? I am sure that scholars have studied female portraits of the era extensively, and I could be wrong. But by the middle of the sixteenth century Titian’s woman in white certainly seems to reflect a departure from the typical female portrait. *

Titian employed this technique many years earlier in his famous Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. In that painting the young boy in the painting looks directly out at the viewer, and while you walk around that painting, the eyes of the boy follow wherever you go. The boy acts as an “interlocutor” inviting the viewer to not only pay attention to what is going on in the painting, but also to participate. 

The Woman in white could also be an interlocutor but she only draws the viewer’s attention to herself, not as a shy object of desire but as a female in charge of all she surveys. The Norton Simon Museum suggests that rather than any individual woman, Titian's painting could represent the "beauty and spirit" of Venetian women." Modern feminists should love this painting.


* I am a big fan of the American film genre knows as film noir, those black and white films of the forties and fifties that are enjoying a revival right now. Titian’s painting brought to mind one of the earliest, I Wake Up Screaming, a film starring pin-up queen Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role. Grable played the sister of a famous model who had been murdered. The sister’s press agent, who had made her famous, was the prime suspect. Inevitably, Grable and the press agent, played by Victor Mature, begin to fall in love. At one point Grable asks Mature if he had been in love with her sister. He replies that he had been her press agent and that it was his business to place her image all over town in magazines and posters. “If I had loved her, I would never have done that, I would have wanted her only for myself.”


  1. Hi Frank! This was a very fun post to read. I actually learned earlier this year that there is a term for the phenomenon it appears that the sitter in a portrait is "watching" the viewer: it is called the Mona Lisa Effect. I've never seen "Woman in White" before, but I'm very curious now that I've read your post.

    Your post also made me think about the position of women in traditional Renaissance portraiture. Earlier this month I assigned my Renaissance art students to watch a documentary about Raphael's portraits. About 18:00 in the clip there is a discussion of how the eyes were seen as a way to depict moral beauty and virtue, so they were emphasized in portraiture. However, it was tricky to figure out the right way to depict a woman in this regard, since the frontal view was traditionally used for depictions of courtesans (which ties into what you were mentioning about indecency). The three-quarter view (not quite in profile, not quite frontal) was adopted instead.

    And on a side note, I've never seen that Betty Grable movie! Sounds like an interesting film. It's interesting to think of Betty Grable - a pin-up queen, as you mentioned - placed in a context in which a character is explaining that distributing reproducible images of a woman do not equate love.

  2. Thanks for bringing this splendid Titian portrait to my attention!