Omnia Vanitas – could it be by Titian?

Kingston Lacy is home to an internationally significant art collection, acknowledged as one of the finest in the National Trust. The collection, which has survived almost entirely intact, contains works by some of the most preeminent names in Western art, including Rubens, Titian, Velàzquez, Tintoretto and Sebastiano.

Although it is not considered to be one of the most important works in the collection, Omnia Vanitas is particularly interesting. The painting has been the subject of recent extensive conservation and technical analysis. It was chosen for treatment following a suggestion by two scholars that it could be the work of Titian, who is regarded as the greatest painter of sixteenth-century Venice.

Omnia Vanitas before treatment and analysis.
Omnia Vanitas at Kingston Lacy before treatment and analysis.
Omnia Vanitas before treatment and analysis.

Omnia Vanitas is an allegorical painting (or story painting) depicting the vice of vanity. The oil painting on canvas shows a full-length female nude reclining on a couch, lightly draped, looking upwards at a painted plaque on which is written OMNIA VANITAS (All is Vanity). A crown and sceptre lie at her feet, and on the floor by her hands are money bags and a pile of gold coins.

William John Bankes acquired the painting in 1820 from the Mareschalchi collection in Bologna. Originally it hung in the Billiard Room (now the State bedroom). The 1856 inventory shows that the painting had been transferred to the Saloon – where it currently hangs- by this date.  

In 2017 the painting was transferred to the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge for cleaning, relining, and extensive analysis. This included paint analysis, x-ray photography and infrared reflectograph, a method which reveals under-drawings.

Omnia Vanitas after cleaning and relining.
Omnia Vanitas after cleaning and relining.
Omnia Vanitas after cleaning and relining.

Analysis by infrared reflectography revealed an exciting discovery: the presence of a female head to the side of the nude. It also exposed other aspects of an earlier composition. These included what appeared to be a mirror above the thigh, and possibly a hand behind the nude’s head.

Image showing the results of analysis by infrared reflectograph
Omnia Vanitas showing the results of analysis by infrared reflectograph
Image showing the results of analysis by infrared reflectograph

Exposure to x-rays also confirmed the presence of a head to the right of the nude and the possible hand behind the head of the nude. X-ray analysis was particularly useful in this case, for it revealed areas where lead white (impenetrable by x-rays) had been used by the artist.    

Image showing the results of x-ray analysis.
Omnia Vanitas under X-ray
Image showing the results of x-ray analysis.

Paint analysis - used to reveal different layers of paint and identify pigments - revealed that the pigments used by the artist were very similar to those used by Titian. This confirms that the painting is not a later copy.

The painting has since been examined by a number of leading art historians. Current opinion is that it is probably not by Titian, but that it was definitely produced in his studio. Scholars have also concluded that the compositional changes indicate that either Titian contributed to deciding the composition, or that it remained unfinished at the time of his death, and so was completed by one of his assistants.