The first Poesie presented to Prince Philip were Danaë (1553, The Wellington Collection) and Venus and Adonis (1554, Museo del Prado, P422), versions of other previous works, but endowed with all the prestige of the commissioning party. In turn, these works became models for numerous replicas (Danaë receiving the Golden Rain, 1560–65, Museo del Prado, P425).
Danaë depicts the moment in which Jupiter possesses the princess in the form of golden rain. Titian painted his first Danaë in Rome in 1544–45 for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, in reference to the Cardinal’s love affair with a courtesan. This Danaë was the model for the version created for Philip II, in which Cupid was replaced by an old nursemaid, whose inclusion enriched the painting by creating a series of sophisticated counterpoints: youth versus old age; beauty versus loyalty; a nude figure versus a dressed figure.
Philip II received this work (Danaë, The Wellington Collection) in 1553 and it was kept in the Spanish Royal Collection, first at the Alcázar and, subsequently, at the Buen Retiro Palace, until Ferdinand VII presented the work to the Duke of Wellington following the Peninsula War. Its original size was similar to that of Venus and Adonis, but at the end of the 18th century, the upper third of the painting was removed for reasons of preservation. Historical descriptions and a Flemish copy reveal that the upper section included Jupiter’s face and an eagle with bolts of lightning, both attributes of this particular god.
A few years later, in 1565, Titian painted the Danaë that belongs to the Museo del Prado, a work featuring a looser execution and an extraordinary quality. It was acquired by Velázquez, to whom in 1634 Jerónimo de Villanueva paid 1000 ducats for eighteen paintings para el adorno del Buen Retiro, among them ‘la Dánae de Tiziano’. From another, undated document, which records the physical delivery of the paintings to Villanueva, we know that this Danaë had a horizontal format, very different from the near-square of the version painted for Philip II. Velázquez must have acquired the new Danaë during his first sojourn in Italy (1629–31), since the group of works sold in 1634 included paintings of his own executed there, such as Joseph’s Bloody Coat (Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio del Escorial) or the Forge of Vulcan (Museo del Prado, P1171).
Although Velázquez‘s trip to Italy in 1629 took him to Venice, he may not have acquired the Danaë there. Only a single Danaë is documented in Venice before 1629, the ‘quadro con Giove in pioggia d’oro di mano di Titiano’ mentioned in January 1606 in the posthumous inventory of the Flemish merchant Carlo Helman (who had died in Seville in 1605) and which Stefania Mason identifies with the ‘quadro con Giove in pioggia d’oro’, artist unnamed, included in the inventory of 13 May 1604 of Francesco Vrins, another Flemish merchant who resided in Venice. This Danaë must have left the Serenissima soon afterwards, for Ridolfi mentions no painting of the subject in Venice attributed to Titian. The possibility has been raised that it might be the painting inventoried in the possession of Giovanni Carlo Doria (1576-1625) in Genoa in 1621: Una piogia d’oro del Titiano.
Doria acquired his Danaë between 1617 and 1621, and it does not reappear in the family inventories after his death in 1625. Thus the Prado Danaë might have been owned by Doria and purchased by 1629 when he arrived in Genoa in the autumn of 1629. The philo-Spanish sympathies of the Doria, and the letters of introduction that Velázquez carried with him, would no doubt have gained him access to the palaces of the Genoese aristocratcy. And that Velázquez acquired paintings in Genoa is implied by the fact that among the works in the 1634 sale was a Susanna and the Elders by the Genoese Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585). However, the Doria Danaë has alternatively been identified with that listed in 1633 in the collection of Louis Phélypeaux de la Vrillière (1598-1681) in Paris, and now in the Hermitage. The principal argument in favour of this hypothesis was that the Hermitage Danaë was the only version of the subject by Titian whose provenance was unrecorded before 1633; but now that we know that the provenance of the Prado Danaë is also uncertain, this association is open to reconsideration.
Whoever the first owner of the Prado Danaë might have been, we can draw two inferences from our study of the painting: one is that he must have been prepared to pay a very high price for the picture, given that the quality far outstrips that of the other known replicas such as those in Vienna and St Petersburg; secondly that he wanted a painting that was overtly erotic. The Prado Danaë greatly surpasses in sensuality the other autograph or studio versions in the voluptuousness of the figure, the absence of drapery, the ecstatic expression of Danaë’s face, her lips half-open to reveal her teeth, and the way that her left hand separates her thighs to ease the god’s access; even the presence of the dog could be seen as an allusion to lust in this context. Compared with the relatively mechanical execution of the versions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Hermitage, largely executed by Titian‘s bottega for foreign dignitaries, the exceptional quality of the Prado Danaë suggests a specific commission from a wealthy patron whom the painter knew and liked. Titian must have painted this work around 1560–65. He executed it with short and broken brushstrokes, with a medium so diluted as to reveal the weave in the canvas, as can be seen in other paintings of these years such as his Self-Portrait (P407) and Tityus (P427), both also in the Museo del Prado.
The infrared reflectogram reveals differences of treatment between Danaë, whose sharp silhouette demonstrates the employment of a tracing, and the elderly wardress, who was drawn freehand: the same distinction, in fact, that we have already seen in the version at Apsley House. The X-radiograph also reveals minor alterations to both figures. In Danaë these concern the initial position of her right leg, which was more contracted, and in which there are small alterations to the extension of the toes of her right foot and the position of her bracelet. As for the wardress, changes can be seen to her chin, her dress -initially a little lower-, and her head-gear, revealing a figure practically identical to the wardress in the Hermitage canvas.