Venus with a Mirror (1555)

Titian, Venus with a Mirror/ Venus at Her Toilette, 1555. Oil on Canvas, 124.5 x 105.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Like the Venus Anadyomene, the woman in Venus with a Mirror is indubitably identified as the goddess herself, in this instance through the presence of cupid. The theme of Venus with a mirror and other attributes of beauty is common throughout Renaissance art, and perhaps speaks to the prominent focus on fashion and appearance in the everyday routines of elite Venetian women. This theme is connected both to the nude Venus, such as is the case in Giovanni Bellini’s Venus at her Toilet (Figure 8), as well as with mortal women as exemplified by Titian’s own Woman with a Mirror (Figure 6). The goddess in Venus with a Mirror is at her toilette, admiring her beauty in the mirror, when her attention is suddenly claimed by the entrance of an observer. Her gaze is directed at the (presumably) male viewer, as his gaze, as well as our own, is directed at her. With this in mind, Titian’s painting can be read as symbolic of the sense of sight. As Goffen elaborates, “The Venus with a Mirror is (partly) about vision, about being seen, about reality and its reflection, and about the exaltation of beauty that is embodied in the goddess and knowable through sight.”[1] For the men and women of the Renaissance, there existed the concept of a hierarchy of the senses, of which sight was believed to be superior. Just as the beauty of Venus is knowable only through this highest sense, Titian’s skill as a painter is apparent through sight alone.

Woman with a Mirror

1512-15. Oil on Canvas, 93 x 76 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. 1512-15. Oil on Canvas, 93 x 76 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Giovanni Bellini, Venus or Lady with a Mirror (Lady at her Toilet), after 1515. Collection of Stanley Moss, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York.

Along with sight, the sense of touch is explored in Venus with a Mirror through the luxurious deep red velvet and fur mantle draped around Venus’s body. It is the juxtaposition of this textile element with the white, glowing flesh of the goddess that not only highlights Titian’s unmatched painterly style, but also the sensual connotations associated with the nude female figure. Through the application of paint, he provides the viewer with “a flesh and blood” version of the goddess, one that would no doubt appeal to his contemporaries’ appetite for the sexualized image of feminine beauty.[2]Titian uses the medium of oil paint to the fullest advantage to combine Venetian colorito and textural definition that rely on both the senses of sight and touch. As Paola Tinaglirecounts, “the erotic power of painting lies in the development of those techniques thatallow the viewer to experience the figure in his imagination also through the sense of touch, which is evoked by the sense of sight.”[3]

In addition to suggesting the sense of touch, the mantle also contributes to the erotic nature of the work by symbolizing the unseen male viewer who takes in Venus’s beauty. As this garment is distinctively male, its presence in the work asserts the missing male presence. X-radiography of the work (Figure 7) has revealed that the canvas originally presented a Venus figure closed in the feminine and classical garment of a white chemise standing next to an elite male figure. Titian reworked the man’s velvet and fur-trimmed mantle so that it is now wrapped around the nude Venus. He erased the male figure, but left visual references to his presence. As Goffen acknowledges, “[t]he coat is, in a sense, his inanimate surrogate, wrapped around Venus in a self-embrace that he would wish to emulate.”[4] By possessing the male garment, using it as her own, Venus asserts her conquest over her male viewers. Titian’s goddess is not a passive figure shyly and silently submitting to being admired, but one that is very much in control of and confident in her own beauty and sexual appeal.

Composite x-ray of Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror”

[1] Goffen, Women, 136.

[2] Susanna Biadene and Mary Yakush eds. Titian: Prince of Painters exh. cat. (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1990), 302.

[3] Paola Tinagli,“Female Nudes in Renaissance Art”, Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity, (New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 141.

[4] Goffen, Women, 138.

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