The Many Faces of the Venus in Art History

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863. 

Wikimedia Commons
Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863. 
The embodiment of classical femininity, the goddess Venus has taken many forms throughout art history.

The embodiment of classical femininity, the goddess Venus has taken many forms throughout art history.

Wikimedia Commons

Titian, Venus Anadyomene, c. 1520.

As a visual meditation on female beauty, Venus is an archetype of womanhood, who, like her mortal counterparts, is not one, static thing, but is varied and changing.

The goddess Venus is one of the most widely represented deities in art history. “Venus is the embodiment of all facets of beauty and love, femininity. This is a complex and ambiguous character, domineering and gracious, dangerous, and attractive. Speaking of Venus not as a character, but as a power, its dominance is even more justified,” says Anna Berkutsia, the digital curator behind the popular Instagram account @mythology_in_art, which, over the course of months, examines individual deities and mythological themes covered by artists.

“I believe that the tropes [of Venus’ representation] are closely related to the cultural components of each time period which determine which aspect of Venus becomes dominant,” she continued. “The oldest statues of Venus point to the central role of fertility in the image of the goddess. Then, in Classical art, Venus became the standard of physical attractiveness and beauty. Over the course of centuries, the image of the goddess acquired new features: for example, the medieval Venus is associated with a wild and destructive passion that goes beyond matrimony and the Christian morality, as we see in the legend of Tannhäuser. In the baroque era, she is presented as more regal, with her nudity offset by head ornament and jewels.”

In the nineteenth century, Venus became the central figure of academic painting: the story of her birth, which took place when Uranus’s genitals were severed and thrown into the sea, which caused the water to foam and Venus to emerge, is the basis of the quintessential female standing nude. Below, we examine three of Venus’s more frequent motifs, which we acknowledge are far from a complete list of Venus’s guise: Venus rising from the sea; the recumbent Venus; and the seductress Venus, accompanied by a male lover.

Venus Rising

Ever since the fourth-century painter Apelles painted Venus in the act of rising from the sea (in Greek, anadyomene), a painting that is now lost but survives in descriptions, a nude Venus, generally in a standing position, has been the subject of painters and sculptors from antiquity into the modern age.

The best-known anadyomene is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1484–86), where she is standing on a shell and surrounded by other minor deities. Titian’s interpretation of it (1520) depicts her in the act of wringing her hair. In the sixteenth century, the simple birth of Venus transitioned to the triumph of Venus, with the goddess flanked by other creatures as she rises from the sea: the blueprint was, actually, the depiction of another deity, namely the Raphael fresco Triumph of Galatea, where the nereid is depicted in her apotheosis, surrounded by sea creatures. Nicolas Poussin’s Triumph of Venus (1635) and Sebastiano Ricci (1713) both follow this motif.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484–1486.
Wikimedia commons

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484–1486.

Nicolas Poussin, The Birth of Venus, 1635 or 1636.
Wikimedia commons

Nicolas Poussin, The Birth of Venus, 1635 or 1636.

Sebastiano Ricci, Triumph of the Marine Venus, c. 1713.
Getty Museum

Sebastiano Ricci, Triumph of the Marine Venus, c. 1713.

Eugène Emmanuel Amaury Pineux Duval, The Birth of Venus, 1862.
Wikimedia commons

Eugène Emmanuel Amaury Pineux Duval, The Birth of Venus, 1862.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Birth of Venus, 1879.
Wikimedia commons

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Birth of Venus, 1879.

In the heyday of academic painting, the Venus anadyomene became, again, a central subject, as a standing female nude was basically an academic requirement: Eugène-Emmanuel Amaury Duval’s and William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Birth of Venus (1862 and 1879, respectively) combine the “triumph” trope with the more natural gesture of the goddess wringing her hair.

Ultimately, Venus anadyomene lent itself to a modernist reinterpretation: Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon references Venus rising from the sea, despite being marked by what Jackie Wullschlager from the Financial Times calls “unprecedented violence and distortion.”

Recumbent Venus

The counterpart of Venus rising is Venus sleeping or resting. While a reclining nude of Venus exists as a first-century fresco in Pompeii, the pose achieved wide popularity in Western art only by the end of the fifteenth century. Her reclining pose showing her in a state of rest was popularized by Giorgione (1520) and was cemented Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), both depicting the goddess in a recumbent position with frontal nudity.

The subject remained popular in the seventeenth century; Artemisia Gentileschi with her Sleeping Venus (1625) with Cupid hovering over her offered a more sensual interpretation of the trope. Velasquez, with his Venus at her Mirror (also known as the Rokeby Venus, 1650) provided a view from the rear, with her face only visible thanks to a mirror held up by the nearby Cupid. Starting in the 1790s, with works such as Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (c. 1797) who gazes directly at the viewer, and Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, (1814) the pose acquired a more overt eroticism and emancipated itself from Venus herself.

Still, the allure of the goddess persisted: between 1805 and 1808, sculptor Antonio Canova depicted Pauline Bonaparte as the Venus Victorious, which combines the imagery of the recumbent Venus—albeit in a more modest guise—with the myth of the judgment of Paris, where she was awarded an apple as a sign of victory.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Oil on canvas.
Wikimedia commons

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Oil on canvas.

Giorgione, completed by Titian, Sleeping Venus, c. 1510.
Wikimedia commons

Giorgione, completed by Titian, Sleeping Venus, c. 1510.

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538.
Wikimedia commons

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Venus and Cupid (Sleeping Venus), c. 1625–1630.
Wikimedia commons

Artemisia Gentileschi, Venus and Cupid (Sleeping Venus), c. 1625–1630.

Francisco Goya, The Nude Maja, c. 1800.
Wikimedia commons

Francisco Goya, The Nude Maja, c. 1800.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Grande Odalisque, 1814.
Wikimedia commons

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Grande Odalisque, 1814.

Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, The Wave and the Pearl, 1862.
Wikimedia commons

Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, The Wave and the Pearl, 1862.

Unsurprisingly, recumbent Venus was widely represented in academic circles, particularly at the Paris Salon of 1863. “So many Venuses graced the walls of the Palais de L’Industrie that the critic Théophile Gautier gave the Salon a special name: The salon of Venuses,” writes Jennifer Shaw in the essay “Manifestations of Venus.”

That year, Alexandre Cabanel painted his interpretation of the Birth of Venus, combining the motifs of the Venus anadyomene, namely the presence of the sea, and the reclining Venus, showing the goddess shyly looking at the viewer through the crook of her elbow, and bathed in opalescent light. In The Pearl and the Wave, from the same year, Paul-Jacques-Aimé Boudry depicted a Venus-like figure from the rear, lying by the seashore, with her head turned to gaze back at the viewer.

That same year, Manet’s Olympia saw the light. While it features a pose from academic and classical art, it lacks the diffused lighting and idealized body of reclining nudes of the past. Instead, her body is girlish, the light is harsh, and she is explicitly depicted as being of a lower class.

“Why this preoccupation with Venus?”, Jennifer Shaw wonders in “Manifestations of Venus.” “Images of Venus were, of course, paintings of the female nude. The relative success or failure of high art in France in the mid-nineteenth century was often gauged by the quality of its nudes. The nude was the ultimate genre for the creation of ‘the ideal’ in art and Venus was the exemplary subject,” Shaw continues, acknowledging the tension between an idealized representation of the female body and the nitty-gritty of sexuality and desire. “When painted successfully, Venus was meant to be an idealized figure in which female sexuality and the productivity of the female body were brought under control.”

Venus and her Paramours

As the goddess of love, it is only natural for Venus to be depicted with her paramours. The most famous myth surrounding the goddess involves her extramarital tryst with the war-god Mars, chronicled in the eighth book of Homer’s Odyssey.

Botticelli (c. 1485) portrayed the couple reclining in a forest setting, their bodies opposite one another. While Mars appears languidly asleep and is disrobed, Venus is fully-clothed, in the guise of a Renaissance-era noblewoman. Piero di Cosimo used a similar setting and composition for his Venus, Mars, and Cupid (1500–1505), with both figures disrobed. Art historian Erwin Panofsky assessed the Piero di Cosimo version as an “enchantingly primitivistic pastoral” where Botticelli's version is a “solemnly classicizing allegory.” Venus and Mars continued to be painted in the sixteenth century: a grand upright picture of Paolo Veronese (1570) pairs Venus—in the nude, but with head ornaments and jewelry—with an armor-clad Mars, and Cupid tying their legs together;

Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Adonis, c. 1614.
Wikimedia commons

Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Adonis, c. 1614.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c. 1485.
Wikimedia commons

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c. 1485.

Piero di Cosimo, Venus, Mars and Cupid, c. 1505.
Wikimedia commons

Piero di Cosimo, Venus, Mars and Cupid, c. 1505.

Paolo Veronese, Mars and Venus United by Love, c. 1570s.
Wikimedia commons

Paolo Veronese, Mars and Venus United by Love, c. 1570s.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan, c. 1551.
Wikimedia commons

Jacopo Tintoretto, Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan, c. 1551.

Jacques-Louis David, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus, 1822–25.
Wikimedia commons

Jacques-Louis David, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus, 1822–25.

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554.
Wikimedia commons

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554.

John Collier, In the Venusberg Tannhäuser, 1901.
Wikimedia commons

John Collier, In the Venusberg Tannhäuser, 1901.

Tintoretto explores the myth even further: in his Venus, Mars, and Vulcan (1550), he depicts her husband Vulcan walking into Venus’ chambers, trying to uncover her adultery, with Mars hiding under a table. Venus and Mars persisted in the 1800s: Jacques Louis David (1822–25) has Venus disarm Mars; while Sir George Hayter has Iris, the rainbow-clad messenger of the Gods, bring a wounded Venus to Mars (1820): the Achaean hero Diomedes had injured both of them in a single day.

Another famous lover of Venus in Greek mythology was the mortal Adonis, who was gutted by a wild boar on a hunt. Titian depicted the pair in the 1550s as part of his poesie (poetry in paint), inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A naked Venus, with her back to the the viewer, is embracing Adonis as he is about to depart for the hunt where he would meet his fate: Cupid, cowering in the background, adds a sense of tragic premonition to the painting. The 1614 painting by Rubens Death of Adonis, in fact, shows the dead Adonis being tended to by Venus, Cupid and the Three Graces.

Yet, art-wise, a non-classical myth surrounding Venus proved to be fertile ground for painters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the Middle Ages, the legend of Tannhäuser had the virtuous eponymous knight and poet led astray by Venus in her dominion, the Venusberg, and, as a consequence, she was presented as more of a fairy queen than a goddess, as the Tannhäuser legend revolved around the theme of the virtuous knight getting lost in the underworld or in another realm.

This legend resurfaced in the mid-1800s, also thanks to Wagner’s opera of the same name from 1845. Among these are Tannhäuser und Venus by Otto Knille (1873) which shows the goddess trying to restrain Tannhäuser; Venus and Tannhäuser by Lawrence Koe (1899), where the goddess is crawling in a bed of roses trying to get ahold of the knight; John Collier’s Tannhäuser in the Venusberg (1900) has the knight kneeling adoringly by the goddess, who bestows a wreath of flowers upon him in a classicized setting. In this guise, she is more of a femme fatale than a goddess.

Though this list of tropes is far from exhaustive, in all her forms, Venus has served as a projection of femininity in art: from the prehistoric fertility statues named after her, to the tendency to refer to portraits of unnamed women in the nude as Venus, she is a central and critical figure in art history. As a visual meditation on female beauty, Venus is an archetype of womanhood, who, like real women, is not one, static thing, but is varied and changing.

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture
Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture is the…
The 10 Best Art Schools in the U.S.
This final installment of the Art & Object series on top art schools and…
Architecture Unleashed: Designs for Dogs
With our loyal, four-legged friends proving their value as comforting…
Legendary Biggie Smalls Crown Leads Sotheby's First-Ever Hip Hop Auction
This month, nearly a quarter century after the deaths of Tupac Shakur and…
Artists Come Together for Plan Your Vote
More than sixty of the world's top contemporary artists are lending their…