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Cezanne: "Self-Portrait" (1895) 

The corollary of the artistic gift is diminution. For every Beethoven, pushing at the boundaries with his late quartets, there is a cluster of Wordsworths, treading water by middle age. In painting there are only a handful of artists who not only defied the years but saved the best until last, among them Titian and Cézanne.

Titian lived to 86 (sometimes, apocryphally, he was thought to be 100) but he didn't even start his greatest series of works-the five Ovidian "Poesie" for Philip II which includes the National Gallery's Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon-until he was in his mid-sixties. He was still working on The Flaying of Marsyas, one of Western art's greatest and most distressing paintings, at his death. Cézanne died aged 67 having found a radical style and remained fully focused on the problems of translating three-dimensional reality as he worried away at the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the Provençal peak he never stopped trying to conquer in paint. 

The superb new biographies by Sheila Hale and Alex Danchev have more in common than just the creative longevity of the painters. They approach their subjects as part of a wider framework: in Hale's detailed and sage account (remarkably the first full biography in English since 1877) Titian is shown as an element of the cultural cityscape of Venice, while Danchev portrays Cézanne as a literary construct-as a great reader himself, an intimate of Zola and someone who fascinated writers from Flaubert and Beckett to E.E. Cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

Titian spent almost his entire working life in Venice, moving there in his teens and leaving Italy only twice, for visits to Augsburg to meet the Habsburg emperors Charles V and Philip II. Otherwise he rarely strayed further from Venice than Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino whose respective dukes were his other major patrons. Despite being a homebody, Titian, as Hale points out, was nevertheless the only Renaissance artist to paint a pope, an emperor, a sultan, and a king (Paul III, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and Francis I of France). 

Titian too had rich literary connections: his oldest friend was the poet-pornographer-satirist Pietro Aretino-who wrote that "Titian is I and I am Titian"-and he was close to both Pietro Bembo and Ariosto. The painter himself was only half-educated and never learned to read Latin; it was his friends who polished what learning he had and whose influence can be traced in the sophistication of his mythological paintings in particular.


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