Theater & art

Frame by Frame

A portrait by Titian that achieves favored status

National Gallery of Art

It’s odd. You get into criticism wanting to share with the world your particular passions. But you soon find that, while it is easy to explain what you quite like and what you don’t like so much, it is much harder — it is actually impossible — to explain what you love.

This painting by Titian is perhaps the painting I love most in the world. It is owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but it is on loan through the end of the year to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where it has been installed in the recently refurbished galleries for old master paintings. If you live in Boston, it’s two hours away by car.

Painted in 1542, it depicts a boy named Ranuccio Farnese. He was just 12 years old at the time. Titian painted it for the boy’s mother, Girolama Orsini, who was missing him.

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I look at it, and miss him too. What extraordinary poise and beauty he has. What a strange amalgam of fragility and maturity, of dreamy sensitivity and focused comprehension.

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An old soul? Something like that. And yet not quite that either.

Ranuccio happened to be the grandson of Pope Paul III. He was studying with a private tutor away from home, in Padua, not far from Titian’s base in Venice. Ranuccio’s brother Alessandro commissioned the painting, partly, perhaps, to console his pining mother. But it was also intended as a test of Titian’s skill.

Needless to say, Titian passed. The portrait of Ranuccio proved to be the first of many future paintings of the vaulting Farnese family; among them were several of the pope himself.

Against a darkened background, Titian portrays Ranuccio here dressed as a Knight of Malta (he had come to Venice to be installed as prior of the Knights’ property there). He wears an expensive, elongated red doublet, embroidered with gold, which, like the undulant Maltese cross on his cloak, catches the angled light coming in from the left. With a show of mature nonchalance, he holds a glove in his right hand . . .

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Yes, yes. But what is it that makes the painting so arresting?

One could say that Titian, always a great painter of children, somehow had found a way to capture both the precious dignity of childhood and a consciousness of the burdens and compromises of onrushing adulthood. But that feels somehow false.

Three years after this portrait was painted, at just 15, Ranuccio was appointed a cardinal. By the time he died at 35, he was also bishop of Naples, Ravenna, and Bologna.

Great portraits call out to us in ways that landscapes, for instance, do not. Simply, they show fellow human beings. And so it’s natural that we project onto them “fellow feeling.” We may look at Ranuccio Farnese, for instance, and think of our brother, our son, even of our own 12-year-old selves.

But what gives the waves of fellow feeling between us and this portrait their electrical charge is, I think, something beyond projections, beyond explanations; something ungraspable: the tender untouchable pride of a face like a distant planet.

Ranuccio Farnese

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by Titian

At Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. 860-278-2670, www.thewadsworth.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.