March 10, 2019

Lady in White
Portrait of a Lady in White, Titian, c1561, March 1, 2019 (colored pencil, ink on mixed media paper)

As I was planning for the 102nd post for One California Girl, I decided to share my experience with the Portrait of the Lady in White that is currently on display at the Norton Simon Museum. The Norton Simon kind of made a big deal over her, so I decided to make a big deal over her as well. I don’t pretend to really understand what makes one Titian painting better or somehow more significant than another. But the Norton Simon thinks so much of her that there is a huge poster of the lady on the outside of the building right now. Apparently, she is on loan from a museum in Dresden. Of course, how a portrait done by a famous Venetian painter c1561 wound up in Germany is another story. Once inside the museum there are signs all around pointing you in her direction. She has one side of a room all to herself with lots of information about the painting written attractively on the wall on either side of her. You may wonder many things about Titian’s lady. I must say I was pretty fascinated by the dress she was wearing. It looks very uncomfortable to me. And who wants huge amounts of stiff looking fabric starting at the hips accompanied by a bust-squishing corset? It was noted on her wall that she was wearing a great number of important pieces of jewelry. Of course, I was most fascinated with the strange “stick” thing she was holding in her right hand. What is that, you say? It’s called a ventuolo and is a kind fan that I guess was common in Venice 450 years ago. But it also appears that this item was often used as a fly swatter as well. I’m not kidding! I didn’t make this up. This information was written on the left hand wall beside her. So it must be true. What kind of lovely lady would wear a stiff white unflattering dress (with expensive jewelry) while delicately holding a fly swatter? Drum roll please…no one knows who she was. How crazy is that? Maybe that’s why a certain segment of the art world has gone gaga over the mystery model in the portrait. Some Titian experts have speculated she was his mistress or one of his daughters. Some say she was some kind of idealized image of a perfect Venetian woman c1561, ready to kill a fly at a moment’s notice. Wouldn’t you want to keep the flies away from a white dress that must have been a bitch to keep clean? I guess there is some letter that Titian wrote that said that the “model was very dear and precious…” That’s not helpful.

back garden NS
Back Garden of Norton Simon Museum, March 1, 2019 (Ink and colored pencil on mixed media paper)

But I had no clue about any of this when I first arrived at the museum, as I went outside to do this sketch of the back garden. There had been so many days and nights of rain and grey skies I was determined to get out there before it got too cold and the sun went down. (I was sitting on my trusty sheet of bubble wrap on a slab of granite. That thin layer of bubbles only provides a bit of cushion, but does nothing to keep my tush warm.)

First lady
A Lady in White pencil sketch, March 1, 2019

As the outdoor lights started coming on, I went inside and plopped down on one of the warm wooden benches directly in front of a Lady in White. That’s when I got my first look at her. There didn’t seem to be much of anyone in the room, except another fellow sketcher and a dad holding his little girl. So, I sat there and did this pencil sketch. As I said there was quite a bit of information about the painting that also included how his Lady in White had been copied almost limb for limb by Rubens a bit later. They even had a sketch that Rubens had done of the painting, much like what I have here. But it’s kind of funny that I always seem to NOT capture the look on the face of the lady or whomever I am sketching. I always seem to capture some other kind of look that initially frustrates me, but later amuses me. And you can see what I mean if you Google Portrait of a Lady in White by Titian. She has a kind of unique enigmatic look about her. She’s definitely not smiling and might even have a look of surprise—I attribute that to the fact that you see so much of the whites of her eyes. (Later in the evening one of the sketchers I hang out with said that her eyes kind of bulged out a bit. I think I agree.) But by the time I had finished this first sketch it was time to gather together with my group.

We gathered and gabbed a little and decided to go back and sketch her again. Now normally I would not be interested in such a repeat of just one lady in a white dress, famous or otherwise. But I was determined to really capture her expression this time. (Oh well, I tried.) I mean, I like the expression I gave her, but it is not the same woman. Anyway, this time we weren’t alone in the hall. There was a rather large group of people who stepped in front of us, and some kind of expert began to talk. Normally, I would be annoyed at a group that blocked my view, but I had already started my study of the lady. So, I just looked at the backs of the people standing in front of me and tried not to listen to what the woman was saying. Of course I heard every word. Mostly she just repeated what was already printed on the wall. I was surprised she did not say anything about the ventuolo also being used as a fly swatter. She focused, instead, on the other things our mystery lady was wearing, spending a lot time describing her opulent jewelry. I assumed, that because she was wearing white that she might be a bride. But the woman giving the tour must have anticipated that others might think the same as me. She assured her group that brides only recently started wearing white. She added that brides of that period usually wore their hair down. So, I guess the painting was not done to commemorate a bride.

Finally, they all left and I was able to complete the top sketch you see. I finished A Lady in White before the others and wandered through her room for a bit. As usual the portrait caused me to think of a number of things, but most of all I was reminded again how women in art over the years have always been just models and/or muses. There must have been some women artists. Yes? And it kind of made me sad that no one thought to write down the name of the woman I had studied so intently. Why didn’t Titian give her credit, give her a name? It seemed like he had painstakingly created such beauty and detail, but had not written her name down somewhere. Why didn’t Rubens make an effort to find out? He didn’t do his version until Titian had been dead (of the plague I might add…) for a little over 25 years. I know people didn’t live very long back then, but there must have been someone around who would have known her. Maybe even the lady herself was still alive when Rubens did his copy. Hey, maybe even that dress was in the back of someone’s closet and her identity could have been traced that way.

But take heart my fellow art lovers. I thought of a perfect end to this never-ending story of women being marginalized and discounted over time. About a week before I went to the Norton Simon, I finished reading a book about a now famous woman painter who had been painting in Holland just 100 years later. Her name was Judith Leyster, and she was one of the painters of what became known as the Dutch Golden Age. She was born in 1609 and died in February 1660. A wonderful author named Carrie Callaghan wrote a wonderful historical fiction about Ms. Leyster’s life. The book is called A Light of Her Own. I almost didn’t finish reading it because it seemed like it was always raining and cold, or blistering hot in her story. I wasn’t sure I could take the cold rainy weather we were having here in LA at the time on top of Judith’s constant worries about the cold and the damp. If you Google Judith Leyster’s self portrait, you will a see a smiling woman at her easel. I thought it interesting that these Golden Age artists often provided their models with humble props to make the finished piece more human and interesting. Judith Leyster did not have great jewels to adorn her models. And guess what? Her self-portrait hangs in the National Gallery. Of course the story definitely mentioned her male counterparts at the time, even one sentence about a young man named Rembrandt who seemed to be getting some attention. It took a while for her to get credit for her work and contribution to the Dutch Golden Age. It seems that her husband, also a painter of the time, and Franz Hals were credited for her art for many years. But eventually she got the attention and credit she deserved. I think if I ever find myself in DC again, I will definitely go back to the National Gallery and look for her self-portrait. I would consider it an honor to sketch her self-portrait. Maybe I could even make my sketch actually look like her? I know I would certainly try. No flies on you, me or Judith!

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