Titian himself recognised that his most successful composition was the Magdalen in Penitence, a design to which he returned with characteristic verve over a period of more than four decades. This canvas, undocumented, except on a fleeting appearance at King Street in 1888, and hitherto unpublished, takes its place in the sequence of variations on the theme which he executed between 1531, when a picture of the subject is mentioned in a letter, and 31 October 1573, when the artist informed the Duke of Alba that he had sent him one. The sequence of Titian’s Magdalens has been considered by Professor Paul Joannides in his key article, ‘An Attempt to Situate Titian’s Paintings of the Penitent Magdalen in Some Kind of Order’ (artibus et historiae, 73, XXXVII, 2016, pp. 157- 94).
As Joannides demonstrates, Titian’s point de départ was very probably one of the treatments of the subject by Leonardo’s Milanese follower, Giampietrino. But there is nothing slavish in his expression of this debt in the earliest of his Magdalens, datable 1533-4 now in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, which was painted for Francesco Maria I delle Rovere, Duke of Urbino and may have followed an earlier composition owned by Vittoria Colonna: in this the saint is protected from our gaze only by the cascade of her hair. Variants are in the Royal Collection and at Barcelona, while what is perhaps a studio recapitulation is in the Ambrosiana, Milan. Joannides suggests that the next phase of the design is represented by the spectacular version on panel sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 24 January 2008, lot 117 and in the picture in the J.P. Getty Museum, Malibu—which may, as Rothe suggested, have remained in the studio as a ‘variable template’ (ibid., p. 167). In these, Titian added a white shift, masking the saints’ left breast and hanging over her right arm, and the striped mantle, which were to appear in all the later renditions.
In 1554, Titian supplied a Magdalen to Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, now either lost or unrecognised. This is likely to have been of the so-called Type II, which Joannides plausibly suggests were ‘developed and produced from c. 1550 onwards’ (ibid., p. 170). A picture of the type was supplied to King Philip II of Spain in 1561: this has not been traced but the closest version to it is that at Barcelona. which as has been pointed out is very similar in size (at 126.5 x 94.7 cm.) to the picture under discussion, which in turn prior to the artist’s addition of the upper strip of canvas was very close in size to the version engraved in the Orleans collection which is the best candidate for identification as the Granvelle picture. A variant with many similarities to this canvas is in a private collection at Lugano (ibid., pl. 14). The absence of smalt, which Titian used increasingly from the time of his visits to Augsburg in 1547 and 1550 might suggest, as Jill Dunkerton pointed out to the compiler, that the picture under discussion was a relatively early version of the type, preceding the Magdalen supplied to the king. In many respects this picture is comparable with that in a collection at Lugano (ibid., fig. 14). Subsequent variants include the Calilupi picture, with more dramatic mountains, the well-known canvases at St. Petersburg and Naples, and that in the Durazzo Pallavicini collection, Genoa (ibid., figs. 23, 24, 28 and 32). The representation of oak leaves and acorns on the bank to the left of the saint, apparently unique to this version, might suggest a delle Rovere connection.
Although the picture has been abraded in the past, Titian’s authority can be read in the convincing angst of the saint’s face, the liquid flow of her hair and the cascading drapery. Lightly painted and at evident speed, with an obvious pentiment in the glass jar, which was originally more bulbous like those in the Pitti and Getty pictures, and subtle modifications in the outline of the right arm, the picture is particularly subtle in the way the colour is handled. Thus the sharp white of the glass vase and the open pages of the book is answered not only in the saint’s shift but in the gleaming river that drains the open upland landscape, the distant spire and the white of the cloud, and the distinct ray above the saint’s head. That this ray is introduced on the narrow additional strip of canvas at the top of the picture suggests that it may well have been a compositional innovation introduced in this version: although Titian throughout his career made intelligent use of joining canvases (F. Russell, ‘Titian: canvas joins and design’, Studi Tizianeschi, V, 2007, pp. 182-8), no similar addition for compositional reasons would seem to be recorded. The ray recurs in pictures persuasively regarded by Joannides as after those supplied in 1561 to King Philip II and a Venetian called Silvio, the former destroyed, the latter untraced (op. cit., figs. 18 and 20). It is beyond the scope of this note to analyse the detailed distinctions between variants of Titian’s design, but worth noting that this is the only version with additional diaphanous drapery at the top of the (proper) right arm and that the ribbons that hang from the devotional book, blue here, are red or pink in most other examples. The signature ‘TITTIANVS’ appears in the same position as in several of the related pictures. There is no obvious explanation of the additional ‘T’ and although testing establishes that the evidently early inscription may overlie a layer of varnish, this would not, however, necessarily mean that it was added after the picture was despatched from Titian’s studio: moreover it is hypothetically possible that the ‘trademark’ signature was added at the same time as the additional strip and thus after the main canvas had first been varnished.
The Rev. Frederick Halliby Stammers (1832- 1901), to whom this picture was delivered in 1888 at West Hampstead, was the son of Joseph Stammers of St. Mary’s, Islington. Educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, he had been Vicar of All Saints, Clapton Park from 1869 until 1886, when he moved to West Hampstead: he subsequently lived at no. 33, the Drive, Hove.
The compiler is indebted to Jill Dunkerton, Professor Peter Humfrey and others who have either seen the picture or commented on photographs.