Introduction and analysis
Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ is one of the classic works of baroque art and was finished in 1538 for the Duke or Urbino. Apart from being aesthetically very beautiful, there are a number of hidden meanings including the allegory of marriage as well as eroticism which although not full blown is quite subtly present in many ways. In fact analysts have shown that the painting is a sort of object lesson in the obligations that the wife has in terms of erotic delight and sexual proclivity. The depiction of Venus as the goddess of love continues to add fuel to the fire as regards sensual visions as well as the angle of the painting where the subject seems to stare erotically directly into the eyes of the viewer.
There is also a sense of the Oriental about this painting especially in the light and shade of the skin of Venus. There are also other hidden themes which describe the stages of marriage. One of them is the dog which lies at the woman’s feet and which symbolises fidelity while the other is a stern and watchful house maid observing a young girl as she searches for some objects in the drawer. This would be taken as being descriptive of motherhood.
The quite radiant sensuality of the painting also contrasts with the domestic and intensely private purpose of the commission. One may also compare Titian’s work with that of his friend Giorgione who had also painted a ‘Sleeping Venus’ around 1510 and which also shows some similarity to this work. However with Titian’s Venus, the Renaissance woman has achieved a clear higher intellectual and sensual plan which in its own way symbolizes love and beauty as well as fertility. The subtle allusions and inferences are an essential part of the painting which is probably one of the best known Venuses of all time.
Giorgio Vasari also waxed lyrical about the Urbino Venus describing it in great detail in his famous ‘Lives of the Artists’. He also compares it to a much loved work and which is also a nude, that of David by Michelangelo which although a sculpture has the same bodily texture of the Titian painting. The style of Venus can also be observed in Rembrandt’s David and Bathsheba which although slightly darker in texture and composition also includes many of the characteristics present in the Urbino Venus. The voluptuousness of the woman’s body is perhaps slightly out of proportion with her small breasts that are rather miniature in size. This was very much in keeping with the tradition of the day where breasts were portrayed as being typically smallish. The female nude has definitely preoccupied several artists over the ages and in Titian’s ‘Venus’ we observe all the known styles coming together..
Perhaps the painting which could be said to accompany this one by Titian is the Botticelli Venus which was however painted earlier in the late 15th century. With a theme emanating from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ we can easily observe the sensual characteristics of Venus matched with the hidden messages that are characteristic of the erotic direction which the painting attempts to portray. Again, the texture and composition of Venus’ body is almost the same as that used by Titian and the fact that it was commissioned by a Medici shows that the influence of private thought into public art was an accepted part of Renaissance art.
In the Ingres painting we also have the theme of the nude from mythology however instead of being in a classical context, this has been transposed to the Orient. This painting was commissioned by Napoleon’s sister who was installed as the Queen of Naples. The nude portrayed by Ingres has lines which are not actually realistic on an anatomical level although the fabrics and details are rather precise. It was heavily criticised when exhibited for the first time in 1819 but since those heady years it has been accepted as one of the great paintings of the Romantic age.
There is also an extremely discreet seduction in the way that the woman is almost offering herself on the divan. The eroticism of the subject matter is made all the more alluring due to the fact that she is looking at us from behind and thus her assets are not displayed making it even more seductive and exciting. As in Titian’s Venus we are also presented with an array of artefacts where these symbolize the Orient in all its seductive sensuality. The theme of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ seems to be ever present as we imagine the sensuality created by the caliph’s Harem. This painting can also be compared to other similar paintings depicting the orient such as Theodore Chasseriau who was a pupil of Ingres and much earlier, Boucher who also painted the odalisque in an erotic pose.
One can also observe the similarities to another painting which treated the Grand Odalisque which was exhibited in Rome and which was unfortunately destroyed in Naples. However although Murat appreciated the painting, the public reaction was quite disappointing. This does not mean that there was anything wrong with the painting but the style was very avant garde for the time. Ingres also painted similar scenes where nudes feature such as The Turkish Bath which is also full of sexual proclivity although again the anatomical features of the painting are not entirely accurate. However Ingres can be credited with the revival of the female nude which had been rather steeped in classical tradition for a very long time.
The nude also features some innovative characteristics such as the lines which are long and sinuous. This offers the viewer great beauty and the sensual aspect is also increased. We can also observe the tones and lights of the subject matter which also demonstrate Ingres’ Mannerist influence. The colours are also economized with the expression of the face particularly alluring and direct. The rich elements in the painting such as the gold and precious stones only serve to accentuate the darkness and sensuality of the subject matter. The nude woman is also quite dangerous and perilous in her abode where she is almost drawing the man siren like into her clutches. Here one can compare the sensuality of Titian’s Venus which is placid and comparatively calm with the erotic sensuality and dangerous portrayal of the Odalisque. Another comparison would be with Canova’s ‘Psyche et Eros’ where the sculpture portrays similar erotic themes with a hint of danger in them.
Museum of the Louvre; Retrieved from: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/une-odalisque
Guide to Uffizi Gallery Museum; Retrieved from: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/venus-of-urbino-by-titian/
Rosand, David (1978). Titian. Library of Great Painters. New York: Harry N. Abrams; pp. 112–13. ISBN 0-8109-1654-1