'The surface, colour and skill are the things that overwhelm me'

The Death of Actaeon, 1559–about 1575, 70in by 78in, by Titian (1485/90–1576), National Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Eileen Cooper says:
‘I fell in love with this incredible work when I was in my twenties, a young painter trying to develop a painterly language. The surface, colour and skill are the things that overwhelm me. It’s a big painting, so Titian feels his way across the surface, moving and layering the brushstrokes, dragging, using fingers and cloths, I imagine. I love narrative work, yet, strangely, here the imagery is less important to me. Of course, there is a strong and brave female protagonist, and I’m sure, as a young woman wrestling with the possibility of making my life as an artist, this had its appeal. At every stage in my life, I’ve revisited this piece, and I am always in awe of it.’

The artist Eileen Cooper is the new Keeper of the Royal Academy, the first female officer of the RA. Her exhibition ‘Showing Off’ is at Art First, London W1, until October 8.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘In 1548 in Milan and in 1550/1, during the Imperial Diet at Augsburg, Titian met the future Philip II of Spain (soon to marry our own Queen Mary Tudor). Philip commissioned him to paint six large-scale mythologies (Titian called them ‘poesie’) and, such was the artist’s fame, he was allowed to choose his own subjects. The result was a series on the loves of the Olympian gods, and the usually disastrous consequences for mortals. Two of the series feature scenes from the life of Artemis/Diana (Diana and Actaeon is co-owned by the National Galleries of England and Scotland, who have until December 2012 to buy Diana and Callisto).

In 1559, Titian wrote to Philip telling him he was working on two further poesie, one of them ‘of Actaeon torn apart by his hounds’. Artemis was the daughter of the almighty Zeus and twin-sister of Apollo. Among other attributes, she was the huntress among the immortals, goddess of the chase. She was unconquered by love and thus remained unmarried. Those who threatened her chastity were doomed. Actaeon, also a famed hunter, surprised her bathing (the subject of Diana and Actaeon). Artemis turned him into a deer and had him devoured by his own hounds.

The picture was probably still in Titian’s studio at his death and is often considered unfinished. Perhaps the looser handling and lack of detail compared with his earlier manner can be partially explained by age weakened eyesight. As the ophthalmologist Patrick Trevor-Roper wrote of Titian’s late work, presbyopia ‘may bear something of the blame—or indeed the credit—for this (generally advantageous) change in style’.’

This article was first published in Country Life, September 21, 2011