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Not Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie: Titian’s ‘Boy with Dogs in a Landscape’

This is the only painting by the world-famous Titian in a Dutch collection. With its remarkably loose brushwork, it is clearly among the master’s last works. Titian was one of the first to leave such visible brush strokes, thus providing inspiration for many later artists, Rembrandt among them. The painting’s technique is revolutionary, but its subject remains a mystery. Art historians have been unable to reach a consensus about what the scene represents. But perhaps that is precisely what makes this painting so fascinating.

A larger work

At some point in time, the painting was cut down, rather roughly, on all four sides, leading some scholars to conclude that it is a fragment of a larger work. Perhaps, they have posited, the original composition was similar to that of a print by the Italian artist Pietro Testa, in which Venus and Adonis are depicted in a landscape with dogs and putti (naked children). The boy in Titian’s painting adopts the same pose as one of the putti in Testa’s print, and indeed Titian had previously dealt with the same subject matter.

A larger work
Titian, Boy with Dogs in a Landscape, 1556 - 1576, oil on canvas, 99,5 x 117 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

Smaller Work

Other scholars surmise that the original painting was not much larger than it is now because the entire Venus and Adonis scene would have required a giant canvas. If that were the case, the painting would almost certainly have been the subject of an extensive literature, but in fact the opposite is true. Furthermore, there is a seventeenth-century description of a painting, assumed to be Boy with Dogs in a Landscape, which does not include any additional details to those visible in the present work.

Cupid

For this reason, several scholars have proposed that the subject is more readily comparable with Paolo Veronese’s painting Cupid with Two Dogs in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which, like Titian’s work, centres on a boy with dogs.

© Trustees of the British Museum. Pietro Testa, Venus and Adonis, 1630-1640, Etching, 36,3 x 45,6 cm. London, British Museum. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
© Trustees of the British Museum. Pietro Testa, Venus and Adonis, 1630-1640, Etching, 36,3 x 45,6 cm. London, British Museum. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
© BAYERISCHE STAATSGEMÄLDESAMMLUNGEN. Paolo Veronese, Cupido with two Dogs, 1575-1580, oil on canvas, 100 x 134 cm.  München, Alte Pinakothek. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
© BAYERISCHE STAATSGEMÄLDESAMMLUNGEN. Paolo Veronese, Cupido with two Dogs, 1575-1580, oil on canvas, 100 x 134 cm. München, Alte Pinakothek. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)

Unexpected Likeness

But there is another possibility: an interpretation stemming from an unexpected likeness. The white dog in Boy with Dogs in a Landscape is identical to the dog in Titian’s Portrait of a Military Commander of c.1550, now in the Gemäldegalerie alte Meister in Kassel. That the same dog appears in several works by a single artist is not so strange, per se. Many painters kept a stock of drawings and prints that they used as examples. But the dogs in the two paintings are so alike that one is almost certainly a copy of the other, but with a gap of at least ten years between the two works.

Mystery Surrounding the Client

One of the more popular theories is that Titian painted both works for the man portrayed in the canvas in Kassel. On the basis of the provenance of Boy with Dogs in a Landscape, it has been suggested that he was the Milanese nobleman and imperial general Gabriele Serbelloni, but this idea is now questioned: the work entered only later into the collection of the Serbelloni family. Even if the common client for these two paintings were to be identified, the question remains as to why one was painted so much later than the other. Did the Portrait of a Military Commander remain in Titian’s workshop for twenty years before he re-used the dog in a new work? Are the paintings each other’s pendants? For now, Boy with Dogs in a Landscape remains a riddle.