She is known as "La Bella," the beautiful woman, and art experts have always ranked her as among the loveliest of portraits by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. Over the centuries, though, discoloring varnish veiled her beauty.
Courtesy of the Pitti Palace and the Kimbell Art Museum
Known for his lifelong artisitic fascination with the fairer sex, Titian portrayed women across the spectrum, from incredibly sexual to indisputably stately. He painted the face of "La Bella" many times, most notably in his famous nude "Venus of Urbino," now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In "Woman in a Fur Coat," in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, she bares one breast and stares boldly at the viewer. In "La Bella," also called "Woman in a Blue Dress," she stands majestically, a rich, noble woman.
No one knows who she is, though, leading many art historians to believe that she isn't a favorite model but instead Titian's personification of ideal beauty. "The standard of beauty he creates—that's one of the appeals of this painting," says David Rosand, a Titian expert and emeritus professor at Columbia University. "And the lush dress is another."
The removal of the varnish reveals the elegance of that dress—painted with costly ultramarine, "second only to gold" pigment, according to Prof. Rosand. "It is always an indicator of a very specialized attention to the image," he added. The painting was made for Francesco Maria I della Rovere, a mercenary who commanded the armies of Florence, the Papal States and later the Republic of Venice; he became duke of Urbino in 1504. Titian also painted him and his wife, Eleonora Gonzaga, in conservative attire.
"La Bella," on the other hand, comes across as a mid-1530s fashionista—wearing a low-cut damask gown embroidered with gold thread, with her ruffled undergarment, or "camicia," showing at her neckline and cuffs. Her lower sleeves are slit to allow the camicia to be pulled through in puffs. She clasps the beads of her gold belt, which probably contain perfume, and her fine gold chain and earrings are set with rubies and pearls. Most of her golden hair sits atop her head in plaits and curls, but one lone tress rests on her shoulder, adding to her understated sexuality.
After leaving the Kimbell on Sept. 18, "La Bella" will travel to the Nevada Art Museum in Reno and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.