This blog is based on a lecture I prepared for art students studying the human figure.
Venus was the Roman goddess whose functions encompassed love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory. In Roman mythology, she was the mother of the Roman people through her son, Aeneas, who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. Julius Caesar claimed her as his ancestor. Venus became widely referenced as the embodiment of love and sexuality.
In c1486 Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli, gave birth to the painted Venus (the statue on which she was modelled dates back to the 1st Century).
Here she is, the goddess of love, standing demurely in a seashell, and being blown to shore by Zephyr, god of the west wind. There, one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, is ready with a cape to clothe the newborn (the shell represents her birth) deity which will transform her into the mother and patron saint of all the forces of creation.
It was painted at the time of the Renaissance, when the Italians tried so passionately to recapture the former glory of Rome and classical mythology had become popular. The mythology of the Greeks and Romans represented a “superior form of truth and wisdom”. It is highly likely that the member of the powerful Medici family who commissioned the work provided the original source of inspiration, and explained the ancient myth of Venus rising from the sea.
Early in the next century there were at several more representations of Venus.
Giorgione painted his Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus), in around 1510. This version of Venus is more sensual than that of Botticelli – here Venus denotes not the act of love but the recollection of it. Giorgione’s intention appears to be the expression of remoteness and unselfconscious beauty in this majestic and ideally conceived figure.
The contemplative attitude toward nature and beauty of the figure is typical of Giorgione. He put a great deal of effort into painting the background details and shadows.
The landscape mimics the curves of the woman’s body and this, in turn, relates the human body back to being a natural, organic object.
The task of completing the landscape background after his death fell to Titian who later painted his own version of Venus, Venus of Urbino, in 1538. It was painted for the Duke of Urbino Guidobaldo II Della Rovere as a gift to his bride.
In this depiction, Titian has domesticated Venus by moving her to an indoor setting, engaging her with the viewer, and making her sensuality explicit. Devoid as it is of any classical or allegorical trappings – Venus displays none of the attributes of the goddess she is supposed to represent – the painting is sensual, perhaps unapologetically erotic.
There are two other painting which we can compare from the 1500s, both of which place Venus back sleeping in the countryside – Girolamo da Treviso, Sleeping Venus painted in 1520, and Bordone’s Venus with Cupid, 1540.
Girolamo da Treviso was an Italian Renaissance painter who worked in the style of Giorgione.
Paris Bordone worked with Titian for a short period of time. His Venus is sleeping, but he has introduced Cupid into the scene.
Cupid remains in several painting of Venus in the 1600s such as Guido Reni’s, Reclining Venus with Cupid, 1639, and Diego Velaquez’s, Venus at Her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus), 1650. In both these pictures Venus is awake and appears more playful.
Artemisia Gentileschi has also included cupid, but his Venus looks heavily asleep in his Sleeping Venus of 1625.
Annibale Carracci decided to include numerous cupids in his idyllic scene of Venus Sleeping painted in 1625.
In the late 1800s, Francisco de Goya presented a much more confrontational Venus, The Nude Maja, (“the naked mistress”) painted in 1792. It was probably commissioned by the then Spanish prime minister Manuel de Godoy to hang in his private collection.
French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres began working on a version of Botticelli’s standing version of Venus in 1808, and he made several changes to the work, Venus Anadyomene, before completing it in 1848. Later that year the painting was sold to Frédéric Reiset, curator of drawings at the Louvre Museum. It was exhibited at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it was seen by the poet Charles Baudelaire – he argued that the head was inspired by classical sculpture, the narrow torso by medieval sculpture and the head by Raphael.
Edgar Degas, who owned 37 paintings by Ingres, had a great love of his work based on the science of design and selection, rooted in classical tradition. His drawing, Venus (nach Botticelli) show the influence of both Botticelli and Ingres.
In 1863, there were at least two paintings of Venus exhibited in Paris.
Alexandre Cabanel has returned Venus to the sea, in this classically composed painting, The Birth of Venus. His painting, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1863, embodies the ideals of academic art with its silky brushwork and mythological subject – it was purchased by Napoleon III for his personal collection.
At the same exhibition, Edouard Manet entered this painting.
The painting, Olympia, was described as “Venus with a Cat” by some critics. Even though Manet thought he was honouring the tradition of painting Venus, whilst giving her a modern treatment, the painting was considered to be ugly and inappropriately composed – here Venus is pictured as a prostitute who is more than a demure figure to be viewed at the pleasure of the observer – she is looking right back at them.
Paul Cezanne painted his Modern Olympia in 1873-4.
At that time Cézanne’s style was moving towards Impressionism. It was during his stay with Doctor Gachet at Auvers-sur-Oise that, in the heat of a discussion, Cézanne picked up his paintbrush and produced this coloured sketch, thus creating a much more daring interpretation of Manet’s subject. The contrast of the nudity of the woman, uncovered by her black servant, with the elegant attire of the man in black, who looks strangely like Cézanne, and who watches her like a spectator, all contribute to the erotic and theatrical character of the scene. This effect is further accentuated by the presence of a curtain hanging on the left of the picture.
During the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, this somewhat incredible evocation was scorned by both public and critics. In the review L’artiste on 1 May 1874, Marc de Montifaud wrote: “like a voluptuous vision, this artificial corner of paradise has left even the most courageous gasping for breath…. and Mr Cézanne merely gives the impression of being a sort of madman, painting in a state of delirium tremens “.
Not surprisingly perhaps, Picasso has also portrayed Venus in 1905, which clearly references Botticelli’s painting.
But of course, being Picasso, he created several images of Venus, including Venus and Cupid in 1949 and then Venus and Cupid, (after Lucas Cranach the Elder) in 1957.
Venus doesn’t appear as a subject for many female artists but she was painted by Romaine Brooks, whose best known images depict androgynous women in desolate landscapes or monochromatic interiors, their protagonists undeterred by our presence, either staring relentlessly at us or gazing nonchalantly past. Her subjects during the early 1900s time included anonymous models, aristocrats, lovers and friends, all portrayed in her signature ashen palette.
In 1910, Romaine Brooks painted White Azaleas, which elicited comparisons to Francisco Goya’s Naked Maja and Edouard Manet’s Olympia.
She also painted Weeping Venus in 1917 in response to the atrocities of World War I – she wrote: ‘Who other than Ida Rubinstein with her fragile and androgynous beauty could suggest the passing away of familiar gods?’. (Russian dancer Ida Rubenstein was a friend and lover of Books.)
In the mid 1900s Henri Matisse gave Venus another makeover, in his cut out style. By this stage in his career he was largely bedridden and unable to paint, but he still created masterpieces using large coloured (painted by an assistant) pieces of paper which he cut into shapes.
In 1986 Andy Warhol also portrayed Venus in Shell in his iconic photographic series.
And then, to finish this series, another of Warhol’s works Andy Warhol’s, Details of Renaissance Paintings (Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus,1482), 1984.
Over the past 500 years the mythology of Venus has been interpreted in many ways – she has been portrayed as an innocent and the mother and patron saint of all the forces of creation. She has also been portrayed as the goddess of love, eroticism and fertility. She’s been alluring, playful and suffering, and in all cases nude. We normally find her in either an outdoor idyllic setting, or in a boudoir, and in most instances she has attendants – either playful cupids or assistants to help her to robe, or disrobe.
Venus has been a woman of her time, with each century seeing changes to the way in which she is portrayed, mainly reflecting both the perception of beauty for that period, or the way in which artists seek to deviate from the norm to express their personal artistic development.
In many of her paintings, she is either asleep, or her eyes are demurely averted from the viewer, which invites their uninterrupted gaze. In only a few works does Venus look directly as the viewer, as these are generally perceived to be more unattractive and/or visually confronting.
Since her initial creation as a statue she has been painted in oils, watercolours, and inks. She’s been drawn, cutout and photographed. Her body shape has changed significantly, but she’s remained young.
Because of the nature of Venus, she will always remain appealing to artists as a source of inspiration, and an opportunity for interpretation.
You might like to know more about my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.
This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris, key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.
If you’d like to see some of the Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.