“Titian and the Renaissance in Venice,” the new show in Frankfurt's Stadel Museum, tells the story of an artist who painted in a way that wasn't typical for his time – the 16th-century. But you won't hear him say that. As historians Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves tell it in their 1974 collection of anecdotes, “Artists on Art,” the Venetians didn't write about their art as did the Florentines in Michelangelo's day. And the reason why is anyone's guess.

Best guess

Goldwater and Treves think that the Venetian's immediate, less rational ways of painting were not easily expressed in words.

Only a few remarks are attributed to Titian, recorded by the chronicler of Venetian art, Carlo Ridolfi. (More about that in a moment), Nearly all that is known about Titian comes from looking at work made throughout his life. And even a casual glance tells you that as he aged through the 16th- century, he worked as if it were three centuries into the future when Impressionism was all the rage. Despite being the golden boy of his day. (Goldwater and Treves say that royals bowed down to him), this Renaissance man became a painter of light, glorying in the way it reflected on surfaces in the world around him – as if channeling Monet.

He also revealed in color. Even his Pieta, a decidedly funereal subject, shows a reddish-gold shade that lends it warmth.

In fact, the color was named after him and is known to this day as “Titian red.”

Ahead of his time

The way Titian applied pigment also gave his work its Impressionist air. His first coat of paint was brushed on an unsmooth surface and then layered with bright colors to add extra life. Palma Giovani, one of his students, said his teacher's pictures looked as if he applied pigment with his fingers instead of a brush.

And because of that brushwork, historian Giorgio Vasari blamed him for being a bad influence on other painters of his day, saying, “These last works are executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of color, with the result that they cannot be viewed from nearby, but appear perfect at a distance.“

If that isn't a description of Impressionism, I don't know what is.

Vasari, unaware of the style to come, blamed Titian for what he called “clumsy pictures” made by his imitators. He said you have to be a Titian to paint like him.

Line vs color

But here's the thing. The little that Titian was recorded saying suggests that he wouldn't agree that he was a painter of light and color. According to Rodolfi, Titian said only, “It is not bright colors but good drawing that makes figures beautiful.”