Danae with Nursemaid
When he was over fifty years old Titian painted the first of the series of Danae paintings, today hanging in various European museums: Napoli Museo di Capodimonte, Museo del Prado in Madrid, Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Viena. Scholars note that at least some of the work in the paintings was performed by Titian’s workshop – in effect, his assistants.
The painting describes a key moment in the myth of Danae. Locked up by the king, who fears for his life after being foretold that his daughter’s son would kill him, she becomes Zeus’ love interest. The father of gods eventually penetrates the princess’ chamber in the form of a golden shower, thereby begetting a multitude of allegorical interpretations, as well as a son, Perseus.
The paintings are famous for their frankness, and are often compared, thematically and compositionally, with the artist’s the Venus of Urbino. But Danae lacks the direct intimacy of the Venus of Urbino, and has a more clear narrative purpose to it. It is thus less intimately erotic than it is lustful and sexual.
Looking intently at the incoming coins, Danae gently tilts her neck and torso towards them, slightly parting her legs; she appears a welcoming and grateful recipient of the descending rain of affection. What goes in her mind, her most unconstrained and sexually charged self could be reflected in her company, who spreads her apron unabashedly widely to catch as much of the precious nuggets as she can.
Correggio employed a similar device in his Danae (painted a few decades before Tiziano’s), albeit in his version it is the protagonist herself who performs the same gesture, spreading a sheet instead of an apron. Titian’s allegory is arguably more poignant and more boldly outlined. Correggio’s, like his paintings, is more delicate and suggestive.
Allegory lies at the heart (or perhaps at the brain) of the Venetian master’s series: the deity appears in a purely metonymical form (with some exceptions – his profile is visible peaking from the clouds in some of the versions), producing an absence that can – and should – be filled with various figurative meanings. The most obvious, of course, suggests that Zeus didn’t actually transform himself into gold, but simply paid his way inside.
Danae receives the rain for what it represents, the nursemaid for what it is. Literally, the princess appears greedy, figuratively, she is enamoured. The old woman, a visual foil, displays outright greed but, we can read her behaviour as a commentary on her counterpart, as she enacts Danae’s display of desire, presenting it in the concrete form of avarice. Perhaps all passionate desires spring from the same root.
The allegory can have additional meanings. For instance, the association of gold with masculinity and power that grants access to a woman’s bedchamber. Another interpretation suggests the theme of intercourse in exchange for money – simply put, prostitution.
Composition and Color
A diagonal extending from top left corner to lower right bisects the paintings, establishing the juxtaposition between the mistress and her maid – and consequently between the figurative and the literal. Danae’s light-skinned abundant figure, sprawling on white sheets, occupies the lower resultant triangle (where all the light accumulates), the dark-skinned, uncomely maid stands in the second, upper triangle.
Furthermore, many of the lines create parallels, generating a visual rhythm, and producing tentative polygons that map out, with the assistance of color, a more global division and visual logic.
These energetic diagonals impose a purposeful sense of movement and dynamism. Motion becomes especially important in the immediate local context of Zeus’ infiltration (the streams of coins are also arranged in fast, descending lines) from what seems like a different dimension. The sheer energy and force of the movement lends the composition a kind of proto-baroque flavor.
Color plays an important compositional role, helping in dividing the piece into logical areas, and marking the most dramatic reference points. Contrast, between dark and light hues, as well as between warm and cool tones, pumps “visual juices” into the overall framework, rendering it more dynamic, vivid and fleshed-out.
Interestingly, the palette device of a “golden eruption” in the sky can be viewed in the artist’s Assumption as well. In both paintings it suggests a type of portal from (or to) a divine dimension – Christian in one, pagan in another.
Titian revels in exploring Danae’s passion, lingering on her body and gesticulation to the point of voyerism; at the same time he ridicules and exposes the maid. He admires the youth and spontaneity of his primary subject, coupling it with what appears like disgust for the secondary one.
In this judgmental, somewhat cruel approach he takes the viewpoint of youth without reservations – a bias that could be the very glue that holds this composition’s conception together. One must be hated so that another is loved.
To compare, Danae with Eros presents a much sweeter mood, but lacks the psychological depth and invention of the nursemaid series.
While the Catholic dogma prescribes the sins of lust and greed as “deadly,” the artist eschews moralistic lessons and avoids denunciation. Instead, he adopts a universal and liberal approach of genuine fascination with human weakness and character; he finds gratification in probing the depth of human emotion regardless of its tonality.