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…”

Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John; (Pietà) by Giovanni Bellini

Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John; (Pietà) by Giovanni Bellini (1460)

Some time ago I talked about Madonna and Child genre of paintings and said that I believed that, as far as religious paintings were concerned, they were the most prolific type of religious art throughout the ages.  Other highly popular religious concepts in paintings are the Pietà and the Lamentation. 

The Lamentation represents a particular moment from Christ’s Passion, between the Deposition (the bringing down of the lifeless body of Jesus Christ from the cross after the crucifixion) and the Entombment.   The paintings always show groups of grieving mourners gathered around the central figure of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary.  They often appeared in narrative paintings of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

The term Pieta derives from the Italian word for pity.   The Pietà is a timeless image, and is a term applied to a painting or sculpture which usually just depicts the Virgin Mary and the dead Christ, often with the Virgin Mary supporting the body of Christ on her lap.  However, sometimes the characters of St John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene would be added to the scene.  The setting does not depict a particular moment in the Passion story, unlike scenes of the Lamentation.

So is My Daily Art Display today a Pietà or a Lamentation?  It is entitled a pietà so who am I to disagree !  It is tempera on panel painting which I came across this week and which I thought was very heartrending and poignant.   One could almost feel the grief of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.  The work of art painted in 1460 and entitled Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John; (Pietàa) is by Giovanni Bellini and can be seen at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

At the bottom of the painting, on the parapet is the inscription:


which translated means:

When these swelling eyes evoke groans, this work of Giovanni Bellini could shed tears

To me, this perfectly sums up the painting.  It is not just me that is moved by this painting as it has been rightly considered as one of the most moving paintings in the history of art.  There is a deep passionate feeling to this painting.  It is not just religious passion but human and psychological passion.  Look at the Virgin Mary as she looks into the eyes of her dead son.  See how she is almost using his shoulder to support her chin.  There is a deep hurt and sorrow in her eyes as she looks intently at the face of her lifeless son.  Is there anything more moving that a mother’s sorrow for the loss of her only son?   She clutches the right wrist of Jesus and holds his lifeless limb across his chest.  She is almost cuddling him wishing she could breathe life into his dead body.  We can see the wound on the back of his right hand made by the crucifixion and Jesus’s left hand, with his fingers curled closed in pain, rests on the parapet.

To the right we see Saint John the Evangelist’s with his face wracked with sorrow and one can empathise with his desolation.  His head is turned away from Mary and Jesus as if he can no longer bear to look at the grieving mother clutching at her dead son.  John’s mouth is open as if he is crying out in anguish.  Maybe he is begging for some morsel of comfort.  It is as if he is asking for help to endure what is before him, as he is aware of his task ahead, that of consoling Mary.    

The three figures are in a tight group in the foreground behind which is an infinite horizon.  The sky is a steely grey-blue which gives a feeling of cold and accentuates the pervading anguish of the setting.

This is indeed a very sad and moving painting.

Saint Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini

St Francis by Giovanni Bellini (1480)

After yesterday’s rather sad and depressing painting I thought I would try and raise my spirits (and yours) with a picture which has uplifted the spirits of many who have seen it at the Frick Collection in New York. It is Giovanni Bellini’s composition which used to be entitled Saint Francis in Ecstasy, but is now known as Saint Francis in the Desert.  It is an extremely beautiful and powerful work of art which the Venetian master painted in 1480. It is a painting full of detail some of which is easily missed if one only gives it a cursory glance. The gallery itself has no doubt about its worth, stating that it is “the finest work in The Frick Collection and the greatest Renaissance painting in America and also one of the best preserved”. True praise indeed !

This is my type of painting. It is an oil on tempera on poplar panel painting. I love and I am often mesmerised by paintings which are highly detailed and in which the artist has painstakingly spent a good deal of time in presenting us with such an extraordinary level of detail. For me, there is no comparison to be had between a watercolour picture, as beautiful as it may be, in which details are merged and lost in a haze of colour, and an oil painting with its precise detail of every bit of minutiae within the work of art.

Stigmata on St Francis's hand (note rabbit appearing from hole in the wall !!)

There is a spiritual force to this painting, which I am sure moves even those non-believers. The story behind, and the setting for the painting is Saint Francis of Assisi, whilst in retreat, praying and fasting in preparation for Michelmas, received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s Crucifixion. This is said to have taken place in 1224 during a retreat at a hut, which was given to Saint Francis by Count Orlando of Chiusi as a place to meditate. It was situated high in the Tuscan hills, above the Apennine forest on Mount Alverna.
Saint Francis, slightly right of centre in the painting, stands, leaning back slightly with his arm outstretched. He is looking transfixed heavenwards at the transcendental light, which emanates from the upper left of the picture. If one looks closely at the figure of St Francis one can just make out the mark of stigmata on the palms of his hands. This miraculous happening is shown as a shadow both illuminates the rocky entrance of St Francis’s dwelling and casts a dark shadow behind the saint and onto the espaliered limbs of the small trees, which act as a screen to the entrance of his dwelling. Look also at the laurel tree at the left of the picture. The laurel, with the fact that its leaves never wilt and preserves its green foliage, makes it symbolic of eternity. In this painting, see how the light illuminates the leaves. It is almost as if it is under a spotlight. Look how it trembles and bends as if being buffeted by strong gusts of wind as it leans into the picture.

Donkey and Crane

Let us look in more detail at the picture. Cast your eyes at the bottom left corner of the painting. One can just see, caught in the branches of a bush, a scrap of paper, on which is written the artist’s signature “IOANNES BELLINUS”. Behind Saint Francis, on the small reading table is a bible and skull, the latter represents death and the transitory nature of life on earth. One can also see a length of cord on the espalier which could have been used as a “bell-pull” by visitors to the retreat. In the field one sees a solitary donkey, standing motionless, and a crane. Further back, below the cliffs and on the outskirts of the city, we see a herdsman with his animals, unaffected by this transcendental happening.

Table with skull and bible with sandals underneath

The water we can see trickling from a spout in the stones is often compared to the miraculous fountain Moses brought forth from the rocks of Mount Horeb to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Another connection with Moses are the abandoned sandals of the saint seen lying under the desk. Bellini may have painted the scene with the bare-footed Saint Francis thus, as a direct connection to the story of Moses on Mount Herob when God spoke to him, saying, “put off the shoes from thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground
Put all these things together and it is no wonder that people tell you that this painting has such magical appeal and once seen will remain in your memory for a long time. If you live in or are lucky enough to visit New York, pay a visit to The Frick Collection which is much smaller than its nearby neighbour the Metropolitan Museum of Art but offers you a wide range of masterpieces of the art world. Go to today’s painting, stand in front of it, look at all the wonderful detail and absorb the beauty of this breathtaking work of art.

The Kiss by Francesco Hayez

The Kiss by Francesco Hayez (1859)

“……….A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop words when speech becomes unnecessary……”

                       Ingrid Bergman Swedish movie actress (1915 – 1982)

With the possible exception of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, the most famous painting featuring a kiss is Il Bacio by Francesco Hayez, as it is entitled in the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan, but to most of us, is known simply as The Kiss.  This masterpiece, painted by the Italian artist in 1859, is his most famous work and a prime example of Italian Romanticism. 

Francesco Hayez was born in Venice in 1791.  He was the youngest of five sons and was brought up by his maternal aunt who was married to Giovanni Binascoa a prosperous ship-owner and an avid art collector.  Living in this household the young Francesco showed a love for drawing and so his uncle arranged an apprenticeship for him with an art restorer.  At the age of eighteen, after studying under the Venetian artist Francisco Magiotto and the Italian artist Teodoro Matteini, he won a competition, the prize for which was a one year placement at the Academia di San Lucia in Rome.  He lived in Rome until 1814 and then moved to Naples.  In the mid 1830’s he moved once again, this time to Milan where in 1850 he was appointed director of the Academy of Brera.  For many years he taught at the Brera and he exercised great influence on his pupils.  The Academy of Brera has a large collection of his paintings including My Daily Art Display’s featured painting, The Kiss.  Francesco Hayez died in Milan in 1882 aged 91.

Although the two characters in the painting are dressed in 14th century costumes the painting was intended to celebrate the Risorgimento (resurgence), which was the nineteenth century movement that brought together all the separate Italian states and by so doing, bring about the unification of Italy. The red and green of the man’s clothes along with the white of the cuffs of the woman’s dress are the three colours of the Italian tricoloured flag (il Tricolore).  The man supporting the woman passionately kisses her.  It is not known who the characters are as the artist wanted the main focus of attention to be on the kiss itself rather than who were doing the kissing.

All in all it is probably the most sensual and spell-binding kiss ever to grace a canvas.

Three Philosophers by Giorgione

Three Philosophers by Giorgione (1509)

My Daily Art Display for today is entitled Three Philosophers and was painted in 1509 by Giorgione, one year before his death.   Little is known about the artist’s early life but Giorgio da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione, was born in Castelfranco, in the province of Venetia in 1477 and by 1500 had moved to the city of Venice.  There he studied under the great Bellini.  Sadly his life was cut short at the young age of 33 by the plague which raged through the land in 1510.  Less than a dozen of his paintings remain in existence and two of them hang in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.  

Today’s painting has left art historians in a quandary on how to interpret this work of art.    The picture shows three philosophers – one old, one middle-aged and one young.  The young man is looking at the cave at the left of the scene and could be measuring and noting down the features of the entrance.   Some postulate it is about three stages of man’s life viz., the young, the middle aged and the old.  Others say it concerns three different philosophical schools of thought; the young man representing the Renaissance, the man, maybe a Muslim, wearing a turban, the Muslim expansion age and the old man, the Middle Ages.  Yet others believe the three figures represent the three Magi, witnessing the first appearance of the star.  The figures seem to be astronomers or at least versed in interpreting the movement of the heavenly bodies, as confirmed by the charts and instruments held by the young man and the bearded old man.   The reason for this enigma is that the painting was made to order for an exclusive patron and the theme of it was only known to him, his friends and the painter.  This genre of the painting in which the landscape and the human figures attain the same importance was unusual in Giorgione’s work.   Giorgione’s painting methods for this work concentrated on colour effect.  The warm and delicately shaded colours he used over large areas of the canvas together with the way in which he allows one hue flow into another similar one creates an illusion of airiness and atmosphere.

Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.

Autumn by Francesco Bassano (c. 1576)

Autumn by Francesco Bassano (c.1576)

Still at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

After looking around the Hans van Aachen exhibition (see yesterday’s post) I went to the wing of the gallery which housed the museum’s collection of Italian paintings and I came across works of art by a father and son, Jacopo and Francesco Bassano. 

Francesco Bassano the Younger, sometimes known as Francesco Giambattista da Ponte or Francesco da Ponte the Younger, was an Italian Renaissance painter who was born in Bassano del Grappa a town 50 miles north west of Venice in 1549.  He was the eldest of four sons and came from a family of painters, his father being the celebrated painter Jacopo Bassano and his grandfather, a village painter, Francesco da Ponte.  His three brothers, Leandro, Gerolamo and Giovanni Battista, like himself followed in the footsteps of their father and both Francesco and Leandro gained reputations as fine painters.

Francesco was trained in his father’s workshop in Bassano del Grappa between 1560 and 1570.  Later he moved to Venice and ran a branch of the family business.  Francesco the Younger had a penchant for rural scenes begun by his father, and he developed this aspect of the workshop.  Sadly, all his life, Francesco was prone to hypochondria and other mental illnesses and soon after his father’s death in 1592, he committed suicide

My Daily Art Display painting today is Autumn by Francesco Bassano, which hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.  He painted this rural scene around 1576.  Against a lush mountainous landscape, he illustrates a country scene with workers busy picking, collecting and crushing the harvested grapes.  In the left foreground are two oxen hauling a cart on which is a large wooden barrel.  Beside the animals is a young girl kneeling, drinking the grape juice.  The background of the picture has a hare, seen in mid flight, and a couple of dilapidated timber-framed thatched dwellings.  The theme for the majority of Francesco’s paintings, notwithstanding whether the theme was religious, mythological or allegorical, was almost always that of a rustic and contemporary setting and decor.

The subject matter of the painting, harvesting of the grapes, is obviously secular and yet there is also a subtle religious aspect to the painting for if one looks closely at the background on the left hand side one can just make out, on the top of a grassy mound, a kneeling man dressed in a white robe.  He is seen receiving an object from a godly figure in the sky who is reaching down from the illuminated cloud.   This god-like figure extends his hands towards the arms of the kneeling individual. The interpretation of this is that it is probable that this small scene depicts Moses receiving the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This was a popular iconography during the Renaissance and it was not unusual to include the detail within a larger genre scene such as the harvest.

Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.