Venus of Urbino by Titian and the Sleeping (Dresden) Venus by Giorgione

Today I am remaining in Italy for My Daily Art Display but moving from fresco painting to one of the most famous and controversial oil paintings, the Venus of Urbinio by the Italian master Tiziano Vecellio.  Simply known as Titian, he is considered to be the most important member of the sixteenth century Venetian School of painters.  This oil on canvas painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and was completed by Titian in 1538.  The painting was commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, a title he inherited that same year, after the assassination of his father.   The painting was more than likely intended for the bridal chambers of the palace.  Titian was almost fifty years old when he painted this picture. 

However this is not a tale about one painting, rather a tale about two paintings of the Roman goddess of love, Venus.  One needs to go back to 1510 to the studio of Giorgione, the Italian High Renaissance artist, who painted, but never completed his painting, the Sleeping Venus, sometimes known as the Dresden Venus, which now hangs in the Gemäldergalerie, Dresden.  Giorgione had worked long and hard at this painting putting great effort into the background details and shadows.  Sadly he died at the young age of 33 and the completion of the landscape and background was left to his assistant Titian

The Dresden Venus by Giorgione (1510)

Giorgione’s painting of a nude woman reclining marked a revolution in art and some art historians believe this painting marked one of the starting points for modern art.   At this time, a nude of this size, as the main focal point of the painting, was unparalleled in Western painting.  Giorgione was actually reviving a tradition of the female nude that can be traced back to ancient Greek art.
 Was this painting erotic?   Maybe that is for the individual observer to decide.  The way she lies with her right arm behind her head exposing her breasts and her left hand on her groin may lead you to the conclusion that there were underlying erotic implications to this work of art.  Giorgione’s nude is painted in an idealized landscape setting. Many believe that she has not been painted for sexual desire, and that the nude is portrayed as a demure goddess asleep and oblivious that we are stealing a look at her.

So one can be certain that Titian had seen this painting for he completed the work of art for his dead colleague.   Titian was no doubt influenced by what he saw and there has to be a correlation between this work and his own Venus of Urbino some twenty eight years later.  Two well known sayings come to mind. An English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and Pablo Picasso said “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal” by which he meant that great artists can draw inspiration from somebody else’s painting while still putting their own touch on it.   There can be no question that there is a definite similarity between the nude figure in the Venus of Urbino and the one in the Dresden Venus.

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

Titian’s oil on canvas painting Venus of Urbino is one of his most celebrated and possibly the most debated of paintings.  Art historians will have us believe that the reason the word “Venus” (the Roman goddess of love and beauty) is in the title of the painting is because of the presence of roses and the myrtle tree in the painting which are traditionally attributed to Venus.   However other historians reason that because the painting shows maidservants searching in the cassone for clothes for the young woman, then this is simply a portrait of a naked mortal rather than a goddess.

Titian’s Venus is in complete contrast to the Venus of Giorgione. The main character in Titian’s painting is a young women reclining on a bed and as was the case with Giorgioni’s Dresden Venus; her left hand covers her groin.  Both women are voluptuous.   However there are some distinct differences between the paintings.  Titian’s Venus is painted in an indoor setting of some opulence, in what looks like a palace, somewhere in Venice whereas Giorgione’s Venus is painted in a landscape.   Titian’s Venus does not present us with any of the characteristics of the goddess she is supposed to symbolize: she is not shy or retiring, she does not give us the belief that she is unattainable, or aloof.  This Venus is a flesh-and-blood mortal, awake and fully conscious of the viewer’s presence

Titian’s young woman has her eyes open whereas Giorgione’s Venus has her eyes closed and may be asleep (hence the alternative title of his painting: Sleeping Venus) which gives her an air of aloofness and one has the feeling that she is unattainable.    With her eyes closed there is a lack of sensuality and seduction in her demeanour.  On the other hand, look at the facial expression of Titian’s Venus – what is she saying to you?  Is she giving you a look of indifference or is it a look of seduction?  Allegorically, is her expression one of lust or of one of marital love?   She appears to be totally at ease with her situation and maybe you, as the viewer, are the ones who are uncomfortable.  Her long chestnut hair falls over her naked shoulders.  Her nipples are erect.  The fingers of her left hand barely cover her groin and the dark shading is almost as if Titian has painted in pubic hair.  Notice how the painting is split in half vertically by the vertical line of the dark curtain behind Venus.  The drape ends just at her left hand which draws the observer’s eye to her loins which her fingers cover

The painting oozes with sensuality which is often played down by art historians but I will leave you to be a judge of that.  She is also wearing jewellery in the form of earrings, a small ring and a bracelet whereas Giorgione’s Venus was devoid of any such man-made accoutrements. 

In her right hand Titian’s Venus is holding a posy of red roses, the symbol of Venus and they give an accentuated tonal contrast against the white bed linen.  This same red is present in the mattress and the dress of one of the maidservants.  The small dog lies asleep nearby and symbolises fidelity, which lends to the theory that the overriding premise of this work of art is one of marital love.  On the window sill we can see a myrtle tree which symbolises undying love and commitment and a Hebrew emblem of marriage.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino will delight some and horrify others, like Mark Twain who saw the painting at the Uffizi, and wrote in his book, Tramp Abroad:

“…You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world –the Tribune– and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed –no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl –but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to –and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her –just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world…yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words….There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery…”