Monday Mystery: Titian's Model

I've always been confused by people who talk about redheads getting picked on. It seems to be a Commonwealth thing, perhaps inspired by the constant warring of Celts vs Angles. My personal experience, in the US, has been that most people are completely indifferent, but a noticeable minority will chase me doggedly, either romantically because they've always had a crush on Ann-Margaret/Jane Seymour/Gillian Anderson/Felicia Day, or professionally because they have a thing for a painter who loved them.

One of the most famous redheads of the fine arts was one of Titian's models. She appeared in more than half a dozen of his best-known paintings--

Sacred and Profane Love
Young Woman in a Black Dress
Woman With A Mirror

--and her long wavy hair was so prominently featured in so many of them that its bright coppery color is now known as "Titian red".

And we don't know who she was.

It is a strange but persistent lacuna in art history that the identities of the models depicted in the world's most famous works are often unknown. There are a few cases where scholars have been interested enough to investigate, like the Mona Lisa, but for the most part, the people who spent their days sitting motionless for the artist's reference are unnamed and uncredited. I find it disheartening. Modeling is not just a matter of being pretty and not wobbling around too much while the painter works; you function as reference for the facial expressions and mood of the piece, not just the armature. You can work off a model who doesn't know what they're doing, but it's the oil-paint equivalent to a director muttering, "We'll fix it in post" -- it's possible, but it greatly raises your chances of failure, and takes a whole lot more time and effort than doing it right to start with.

Historians are annoyingly uncurious about this information gap. Occasionally you'll run into one who notes that we don't know who Titian's model was, and then immediately moves on to cover something they consider more important, which is almost literally anything else.

Titan is known to have used Venetian courtesans for models (note: Titian is known for it, and famous; the courtesans are not mentioned as having done anything, and nobody knows their names), and on the rare occasions when anyone bothers to wonder about it, it's generally assumed that the redhead here was just his favorite fancy escort. One of them notes that someone has made some effort to establish who sat for one of Titian's male portraits, but just goes 'eh, we couldn't match her to a noble, so prolly a whore' about the woman.

She must have been important to him to have sat for so many paintings. There isn't a shortage of aspiring models today, and there wasn't one in 16th c. Italy, either. You don't get asked back unless the artist has taken a shine to you, as a professional or as a human being. Seven paintings? And featured that prominently? Titian liked her.

Even if you're still laser-focused on the painter like no other factor could possibly have contributed to the success of the piece, wouldn't you want to know who he liked to spend his time with? It tells you a lot about a person. The measure of a man is the company he keeps, and so forth. It baffles me that people can be so utterly uninterested in things like that.

In any case, the one person she seems not to have been was his mistress/housekeeper, later wife, Cecilia. Titian married Cecilia, with whom he had already had a son (two, by some accounts), when she was gravely ill in 1525, to be certain their child would be recognized as legitimate in the event of her death. (She recovered, and they stayed together until she died in childbirth in 1530.) Although I cannot find the ultimate source, it's noted in many biographies that they had been involved for about five years before the official marriage. The mystery model comes into Titian's work suddenly, and vanishes just as abruptly in 1516, which puts her on the scene too early to be Titian's well-known paramour.