Venus Emerging from the Sea

Titian, Venus Anadyomene (Venus Rising from the Sea), 1520. Oil on Canvas, 75.80 x 57.60 cm. National Gallery of Scotland.

Titian references the familiar, Classical form of Venus most explicitly in his Venus Anadyomene. Here the goddess is clearly identified through the attribute of the shell in the bottom left-hand corner, a reference to her birth. Titian paints her as she emerges from the sea, wringing out her tousled hair as she becomes aware of some unseen observer. The work is a modification of the classical Crouching Venus (Figure 2) composition which depicts the goddess, who has been surprised at her bath, in a crouching position with one arm raised to cover her breasts. Titian’s figure, although standing, has been cropped slightly above the knees alluding to the tradition of the goddess in the crouched position with her knees close to the ground. This Venus returns the gaze of her onlooker but makes no effort to conceal herself. She stands her ground refusing to be intimidated and perhaps is even inviting the viewer to gaze upon her natural beauty in all its glory. So too is Titian inviting his viewer to gaze upon the beauty of his painting as he proudly asserts his connection to the art of antiquity.

Doidalsas, Crouching Venus, 250-240 BCE. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy.

With the Venus Anadyomene, Titian makes a direct reference to the renowned Classical Greek painter Apelles and his lost work of the same subject. As recounted by Pliny in his Natural History, Apelles painted an image of Venus emerging from the sea for his patron Alexander the Great. As Pliny recounts, “The king was particularly fond of Pancaste, one of his mistresses, and, out of admiration for her physical beauty, he commissioned Apelles to paint her in the nude.” [1] It is asserted that Pancaste was painted by the artist in the guise of Venus Anadyomene, thus establishing the early connection between images of the goddess of love and representations of ideal beauty. In fact, Alexander found this image of his lover as Venus to be so naturalistic and beautiful that he rewarded the painter with the gift of Pancaste.[2] Throughout his career Titian actively encouraged comparisons between himself and the great painter of antiquity, and by painting the very image for which Apelles was so well-known he asserts himself as his successor (or even as his superior). As Luba Freedman notes, it is Titian’s“self-establishing as an excellent portraitist and as the painter of Venus, which were the two categories of painting in which Apelles had excelled” that suggest the Venetian artist’s desire to connect his career with the venerated Classical tradition.[3]

In addition to asserting his own artistic skill Venus Anadyomene, Titian also asserts the primacy of painting over sculpture, of colorito over disegno. The minimalist background allows for the volumetric figure of Venus to project in a sculptural manner that is perhaps a reference to Michelangelo’s figures on the Sistine ceiling. [4] Venus is given a three-dimensional quality associated with sculpture but is more naturally depicted in the painted medium as the introduction of color endows her with flesh tones that bring her further to life. Titian also employs Venetian colorito to emphasize the landscape of the sky and the sea, elements not achievable through the medium of sculpture. Perhaps too, the figure of Venus can stand in as a symbol for Venice, “for had not Venice risen from the sea, as alluring as the goddess herself?”[5]

[1] Trevor M. Murphy Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: the Empire in the Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), 332.

[2] Ibid., 332.

[3] Luba Freedman, “Titian and the Classical Heritage”, The Cambridge Companion to Titian, Patricia Meilman ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), 194.

[4] Goffen, Women, 132.

[5] Bull, Mirror, 207.

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