Venus with Musicians Theme

Titian, Venus with an Organist and Cupid, 1550. Oil on canvas, 148 x 217 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Titian, Venus with an Organist and Dog, 1550s. Oil on Canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The motifs of the gaze, the senses, and the self-assured goddess are also key elements of Titian’s variations on the theme of Venus with musicians. By combining the concepts of music and hearing with beauty and sight, these paintings connect the goddess with contemporary Renaissance cultural traditions. In Venus with an Organist and Cupid, the presence of her winged son once again safely identifies the figure as the Roman goddess. In his later composition Venus with an Organist and Dog, Titian replaces the identifying symbol with a small dog begging to be petted. In the former work, Titian depicts a young, boyish musician while in the later he presents a more mature mustachioed man. Perhaps this is to suggest that all men regardless of age are in danger of falling under the spell of a beautiful woman.

In spite of the addition of the male figures in these paintings, Venus remains the focal point for the musicians as well as for the viewer. In both variations, the nude Venus reclines on her side upon a bed covered in brocaded velvet while the male organist turn his head to gaze unabashedly upon her naked form. While Venus may be aware of his gaze, she cannot be bothered to acknowledge or return it. It is through this interaction, Laurie Schneider Adams asserts, that Titian “orchestrates met and unmet gazes with displaced erotic subtexts.” [1] Unlike many of his other Venusian works in which the goddess returns the gaze of her admirers, in this thematic grouping Venus is more self-reflective

The goddess’s feminine beauty is enhanced through Titian’s depiction of her as a calm, nurturing figure capable of psychological musings. He “add[s]to the sensuousness of her graces a sense of quiet and repose disturbed only by the playful instincts of the little animal” or by her playful son.[2] In spite of the lascivious attentions of the male musicians, this Venus is not merely an objectified representation of female sexuality. By giving her psychological depth, and associating her with the pleasures of a cultured society, Titian reconfigures the mythological figure in the context of the Renaissance. His Venus therefore comes to embody an ideal Venetian female figure who is cultured, maternal, reflective, fair and beautiful and one who is meant to be worshiped and admired. As Goffen describes, “[t]he goddess whom men worship with their music and adore with their eyes is, therefore, not a bridal Venus; but neither is she a courtesan. She is, instead, the epitome of all beauty and the embodiment of all sensuous pleasure, including sexual pleasures of the flesh.”[3]

The compositional arrangement of the reclining Venus references Titian’s reinvention of the Classical, as well as influences from his predecessors, and his challenges to his contemporaries. The horizontal figure propped up by one elbow on a bed is reminiscent of Roman and Etruscan sarcophagi that feature banqueters lounging on their sides and supporting themselves with one arm. Perhaps Titian’s source for the arrangement of the body of Venus stems from the 1520 Sleeping Venus by Giorgione, which incidentally, Titian helped to complete. Giorgione’s iconic Venus rests on her side with her head cradled in the crook of her right arm as she sleeps peacefully in a pastoral landscape. Titian reinvents this pose, adding his own alterations. The Venuses in both Musician themed works have been brought into a contemporary Renaissance interior, are alert and engaged, and have been flipped in the composition. Another source of comparison in terms of pose is that of Venus and Cupid by Pontormo after Titian’s rival Michelangelo. The painting features a rather masculine Venus lounging on her left side in a similar curved position as Titian’s Venuses. However, Michelangelo’s goddess is more solid and hard due to the defined lines and countours, while Titian’s remains fleshy and soft due to his fluid brushstrokes. This comparison in particular offers evidence of the differences between disegno and colorito, Florentine and Venetian traditions, and the art of Michelangelo and Titian.

Giorgione, Sleeping Venus 1510. Oil on canvas, 40 x 69 in. Gemäldegalerie, Dreseden, Germany.

Pontormo, after Michelangelo, Venus and Cupid, 1532-35. Oil on wood, 127 x 191 cm. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.


[1] Patricia Meilman ed. The Cambridge Companion to Titian (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2004), 231.

[2] Biadene and Yakush, Prince of Painters, 294.

[3] Goffen, Women, 169.

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