Visual Art

Model Relationship
Titian and “La Bella,” the Woman in a Blue Dress

In the hall of fame for artist-model confabs, there is Alfred Stieglitz’s obsessive photographic affair with Georgia O’Keeffe’s body, Francis Bacon’s painterly sadomasochism with his doomed lover, George Dyer, and of course Edouard Manet’s more chaste relationship with voluptuous Olympia. (He died of syphilis; she did not.) But what kind of encounter produced 16th-century painter Titian’s stunning La Bella we’ll never really know.

The unnamed subject, historians speculate, may have been a so-called “honest courtesan,” part of a class of Venetian prostitutes so beautiful, poised, and lettered they became fixtures in high society. Or maybe not. She may have been the same woman—a married duchess no less!—who sat for Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Or maybe not. What is known is that after commissioning the painting, its first owner, the Duke of Urbino Francesco Maria I della Rovere, became obsessed, later famously imploring the artist to quickly finish the painting “of that woman in a blue dress.”


Nearly half a millennium later, the dazzling piece should still be the talk of the town when it is unveiled at a single-painting show at the Portland Art Museum on November 25. Not only is the portrait fresh off of a three-year-long restoration in its usual home in Florence, Italy, but it will be the first Titian to ever be exhibited in Portland.

And, in the end, the identity of “La Bella” is less important than Titian’s brilliantly dexterous brushwork and his unprecedented vivid sense of color—not to mention the simple fact that when Titian sold her not as a portrait of a specific person but as a painting, he essentially created the modern art market.—Randy Gragg