Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli

Venus and Mars by Botticelli by Sandro Botticelli (c.1485)

Many have written about today’s painting and the symbolism of what is depicted and the interpretations of the work abound.  In my blog today I have tried to steer a middle course between completely ignoring the interpretation of the work and delving too deeply into the scholarly minutiae of what we see before us.  Today I simply want to look at the characters behind the title of the painting and the actual people who we see before us.

The painting entitled Venus and Marswas completed by the Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli around 1485 and the nineteenth-century title of the painting alludes to two mythological people who had an adulterous affair.  They are Venus, the Goddess of Love, who had an illicit liaison with Mars, the God of War, whilst she was still married to the lame blacksmith Vulcan, who forged Cupid’s arrows and the intricate armour of the Gods and heroes.   The tempera and oil on poplar work, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, measures 69cms tall and 174cms in width.  Little is known as to who commissioned the painting or for where it was intended.

A cassone

However the dimensions of it would probably mean that it was made for either a cassone or a spalliera.   A cassone is the Italian word for chest or box. They were used for storage and often associated with the giving of a dowry.  A spalliera is the Italian word for the back of a bench or settle, or the headboard or footboard of a bed, or any similar vertical attachment of a piece of furniture.  They were commonly painted in Italy, especially in Tuscany.  Often these items of furniture were richly decorated with carving, gilding and painted panels illustrating acts of heroism or as is the case with this work, acts of love.  The fact that it is an act of love we are looking at probably means that this was meant for a bridal chamber and maybe it was to be incorporated into the headboard of a bed (spalliera di letto).  If we look at the painting we can see that the two figures almost rest on the base of the painting and so if it was meant to be part of the headboard of a bed, the lovers would almost be seen as lying on the bed itself.

Before I look at the two main characters in this painting by Botticelli, let us look at some of the other details we see before us.  The setting for the painting is contemporary.  It is a forest and yet strangely the artist has not incorporated any flowers into the scene which may be simply an indication of the time of the year. However the couple is framed by two evergreen plants, the laurel and the myrtle.  The former was associated with the family of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the myrtle was associated with Venus.   In the distance, on the other side of the fields we can just make out the city of Florence, behind which rise the mountains which lie to the north of the River Arno.

If you look closely at the top right corner of the painting, just above the head of Mars you will see a swarm of hovering wasps.  So why include them?  One thought is that as the Italian word for wasps is vespe and they form part of the Vespucci’s coat of arms.  We will see later that the model used for Venus was Simonetta Cattaneo, whose husband Marco was a member of the Vespucci family.  Others interpret the presence of wasps as being the symbolic of the painful stings of illicit love.

In the painting we also have four small satyrs.  Normally in paintings featuring Venus one would have expected to see erotes, which were the tiny group of gods and demi-gods associated with love and sex and part of Venus’ retinue.  The satyrs were more like little devils and maybe their inclusion once again to the fact that we are observing an act of forbidden love.  Two of the satyrs can be seen wielding a lance which no doubt has a phallic connotation.

The narcotic fruit ?

Another satyr can be seen blowing a conch shell in an attempt to wake the sleeping figure of Mars and one, with a lascivious expression on its face, lies beneath the arm of the exhausted Mars, clutching a green fruit.  This fruit has brought about much discussion as to what it is and why it is incorporated in the painting.   Some would have us believe it is the fruit of one of the highly narcotic datura genus of plants, datura stramonium and that Mars is in a drug-induced sleep.  Other art historians disagree with this assertion pointing out that the plant was not found in Italy at the time Botticelli painted his masterpiece.  Others have suggested the fruit depicted was ecballium elaterium which is also known as the ‘exploding cucumber’ or ‘squirting cucumber.’  This too is a poisonous plant.

Simonetta Vespucci née Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia

In today’s painting in My Daily Art Display the woman who was believed to have been used as a model for Venus was looked upon as the most beautiful woman of her time.  Botticelli had incorporated this woman in to two of his other masterpieces, namely, Primavera which he completed in 1482 and the Birth of Venus which he completed around 1485.  The interesting thing is that she had died some nine years before Botticelli painted the last of these works.   Some historians would have us believe that Botticelli had, like so many, fallen in love with her beauty.  How true that is we will probably never know but we do know that Botticelli asked to be buried at her feet in the Franciscan Church of Ognissanti, which was the parish church of the Vespucci family in Florence. His wish was in fact carried out when he died some 34 years later, in 1510 and a small round stone in a chapel of the right transept marks his resting-place.

The woman in question is Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia.  She was thought to have been born in either Genoa or Portovenere around 1453.  She was part of a very wealthy and influential family.  Her father, Gaspare Cattaneo della Volta, was a Genoese nobleman from the House of Volta and her mother, Cattocchia Spinola de Candia came from an equally wealthy background, the European dynastic House of Candia.  Simonetta was married at the age of sixteen to the son of a wealthy Florentine banker, Marco Vespucci, who was a distant cousin of the famous Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.  Although this was not an arranged marriage, Simonetta’s parents were pleased with the arrangement as the groom’s family were well connected with the powerful Medici family.

Simonetta moved to Florence and after the marriage in 1469 she and her husband became regulars at the Medici court in Florence and she struck up a close friendship with the co-rulers of Florence, the two de’ Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It was whilst attending court functions that Simonetta first met a number of court painters including the young Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli.  Men were astounded by her natural beauty and she soon became a court favourite.  One of the most prominent men to fall under her spell was none other than Giuliano de’ Medici himself.  In 1475, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s elder brother, organised a jousting tournament to celebrate a treaty with Venice. It was reported that at this tournament Giuliano had entered it carrying a banner, which had been painted by Botticelli, and on which was a picture of Simonetta depicted as wearing the helmet of the Greek goddess of war,  Pallas Athene and beneath the portrait were the French words La Sans Pareille (The unparalleled one).  Giuliano won the tournament and at the same time, Simonetta was nominated the “The Queen of Beauty”.  It was following this that she was looked upon as the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.

So what was Giuliano’s relationship with the married Simonetta?  Were they lovers or was it a platonic relationship?  The question has divided historians over the years and probably we will never know the truth.  Whatever the answer is the relationship was short lived as Simonetta died of tuberculosis on April 26th 1476, a year after the jousting tournament.  She was only twenty-two years of age.  On the day of her funeral, the city of Florence came to a stand-still as thousands of mourners attended the funeral.  Ironically, Giuliano de Medici was assassinated exactly two years to the day on 26 April 1478 in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, by Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini. He was killed by a sword wound to the head and was stabbed 19 times.

The figure of Mars in the painting is depicted in a traditional classical God-like way, unlike the way in which Botticelli has portrayed Venus as a contemporary woman with a contemporary hair-style dressed in her contemporary clothes.  His body is one of a well-toned athlete and was similar to those classical paintings and sculptures of the young Gods.  The whiteness of his skin reminds us of the white marble sculptures of ancient times.  But who is this Mars?  If we believe that Venus is Simonetta Vespucci, then should we believe that this reclining man is her husband or should we believe that in fact it is her “close friend”,  possibly her lover, Giuliano de’ Medici?  The figure in the painting has a long nose and deep-set eyes and they resemble the ones in his portrait which Botticelli completed of Giuliano around 1477.  As we know from mythological tales Mars was the lover of the already married Venus so are we to deduce that Botticelli had wanted to similarly portray Giuliano de’ Medici and the already married Simonetta as a comparison?

Look at the way Botticelli has portrayed the two characters.  The man lies back exhausted but the woman sits upright and looks quite composed.  Who has initiated the bout of love-making?  Who is the giver and who is the receiver?  I believe in this painting, Botticelli has given the power to the female.  She looks at the man with little emotion.  Maybe she is reflecting on the power she has over him.  The woman seems totally in command of the situation whereas the man appears worn out after what could have been a bout of love-making.  Is this a scene of male-female role-reversal in which the female has seduced the male, drained him of his vitality and in some ways neutralised him and now studies her conquest?

I am a great fan of Botticelli especially in his portrayal of women.  They must be some of the most beautiful ever painted.

I started this blog saying I would keep it concise and not too technical but the more I investigated the painting and its symbolism the more I got carried away with the subject.  More has been written about the painting by more knowledgeable people than me and if this blog has stimulated your mind and your thirst for knowledge about this work I suggest you visit some of the websites which discuss the work of art.  They are:

The autor of this site is by David Bellingham, of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art


The Three Pipe Problem, which is a truly amazing art blog and one i love to visit.  If you go to the “search facility” and insert “Venus and Mars” you will find some interesting articles about today’s painting.

Olympia by Édouard Manet

Olympia by Édouard Manet (1863)

My Daily Art Display today continues with the life of Édouard Manet.  Yesterday we had reached 1864 the year when he exhibited his work entitled The Dead Christ with Angels at the Paris Salon and for which he was heavily criticised.  So did Manet, after the criticism and ridicule of his 1864 painting, submit a less contentious work the following season in 1865?  The answer is simply a resounding NO.  He entered two paintings into the 1865 Salon and in fact one of the paintings entitled Olympia, was one he had completed two years earlier and it was this one which caused an even greater furore with both the public and critics alike. The fact that Manet had completed the painting two years earlier but had not exhibited it makes one wonder whether Manet himself had doubts about the wisdom of launching such a contentious painting on the Parisian public.  His concern was well founded as it was considered the most shocking of all the works exhibited that year.  Olympia by Manet is My Daily Art Display featured painting today.

Before us we see an almost nude woman lying on a bed with a pink orchid tucked behind her left ear.    At the end of the bed, by the naked woman’s feet, we can just make out a small black cat.  In fact the inclusion of the small furry animal often had people naming the painting, Venus with a Cat.  The model for the painting was Victorine Meurent.  Victorine was also, besides being a famous model for painters,  an artist in her own right and one who exhibited a number of works at the prestigious Paris Salon.  Ironically in 1876, one of her paintings was included in the Salon’s juried exhibition (exhibitions at which the works of art are only displayed if selected by a jury) and the painting which Manet put forward for selection was rejected.

The subject of the oil on canvas painting caused a sensation.  So what shocked the critics?  Was it the nudity?  If that was the case, then why, as surely paintings of nudes were quite common at that time.   The problem was not the nudity but the fact that the critics believed the naked woman that Manet had depicted could be identified as a demi-mondaine.  These were ladies who had a reputation of enjoying an extravagant lifestyle of fine food and clothes, all of which had been achieved because of the steady income they made in cash and gifts from their various lovers.   In other words she was identified as a high-class prostitute and the Parisian public was very uncomfortable with the scale of prostitution in their city. 

Venus of Urbino by Titian

There can be no doubt that Manet’s inspiration for this painting came from Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Giorgione’s Sleeping (Dresden) Venus (see My Daily Art Display for Feb 15th).  Maybe Manet wanted to update and be more innovative with his “Olympia”.   Not all critics condemned his effort.  A few praised him for his “bold step into modernism”.  However there are differences in the way Manet has portrayed his woman in comparison with Titian’s Venus and it is these differences which led to the outcry.

Sleeping (Dresden) Venus by Giorgione

The contention that Manet’s woman was merely a high class prostitute was brought about by the way she wore an orchid in her hair, her pearl earrings, her bracelet, and her expensive oriental shawl on which her body rests,  all of which gave rise to the belief that her wealth was gained from the “service” she offered her lovers.  Her skin is bright white in colour and there is a severe shift from light to shadow in this painting.  Look how she stares towards us with her black eyes.  This is not a demure gaze.  It is a challenging, contemptuous and provoking look, in some ways daring us to find fault with her appearance.  Her hand is placed over her vulva and in a way she is saying that this is only to be had by the men she chooses.  It is in some way a signal that she will choose who she will bed.  Around her neck she wears a narrow black ribbon which when contrasted with the paleness of her neck adds sensuality to her pose.  Her upswept hair held in place by the orchid adds to the eroticism.  Her slipper is half on and half off her foot in a slovenly fashion. 

Her black servant, Laure, stands by her side.  She is attired in the typical fashion servants of a courtesan would dress.  She is holding a bouquet of flowers which the naked woman seems to ignore.  They are probably a gift from a lover who may have just arrived.   Maybe her eyes are not on us but on the door through which her lover is about to emerge.

As I said earlier we have the strange black cat sitting on the end of the bed.  In Titian’s Venus of Urbino he had included a dog which symbolized fidelity and added a kind of gentility to the scene.  Manet would have none of this sentimentality and added his black cat which because of its habits was taken as a symbol of laziness, lust and prostitution.  A coincidence?  Or did Manet know exactly what he was doing when he include the animal in his painting?

The painting when exhibited was one which the observer either loved or hated.  There were no half-measures.  The painting could not be ignored.  The critics labeled it immoral and vulgar and his friend Antonin Beaudelaire commented that the picture had created such anger that it was in danger of being destroyed by an over-zealous and offended observer.  In 1890 the French government acquired the painting with a public subscription, which had been organized by Claude Monet, and it now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

 I will let you decide whether what you see before you is Venus, an old-style Titian-like goddess or a nineteenth century Venus whose name was Olympia.   Maybe you prefer to simply believe Manet has depicted a high class prostitute awaiting her next client but whatever you decide I think you will agree that it is a fine work of art.

Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë and Mademoiselle Lange as Venus by Anne-Louis Girodet

Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë by Anne-Louis Girodet (1798)

My Daily Art Display today has the slight whiff of scandal about it, or to be more precise, about the sitter for the painting.  It is a tale of two paintings, a disgruntled sitter and a furious artist.   The title of today’s featured works are Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë and Mademoiselle Lange as Venus and the artist who painted both these rather erotic works in 1799 was the French painter and illustrator, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trisson but more commonly known as Anne-Louis Girodet.  Here was an artist whose works straddled the rationalism of Neoclassicism and the flights of fantasy associated with Romanticism.

Girodet was born in Montargis, a small town some 100 kilometres south of Paris in 1767.   He had an unhappy start to life with both his parents dying when he was young and he then came under the guardianship of Doctor Trioson who took care of his well-being and education.  Later Girodet would add the surname of his guardian to his own in recognition to everything the doctor had done for him when he was young.  There is a train of thought that the good doctor was actually Girodet’s natural father.   Initially Girodet studied to become an architect and had a desire to follow a military career but finally he decided that the life of an artist was for him.

He studied with Jacques-Louis David and in 1789 was awarded the Prix de Rome by the Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and with that came the scholarship to travel to Italy and stay at the Academy of France in Rome.  Girodet remained in Rome for five years.

He returned to Paris in 1793 and concentrated on portraiture and was well known for his glorifying portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte.  One of his best known and most controversial portraits is one of the painting I am featuring today.  He also spent a lot of time doing illustrations for books.  In 1815 his erstwhile guardian Doctor Trioson died and Girodet inherited a fortune and for the rest of his life he spent little time painting and concentrated on writing poetry.  Girodet died in Paris in 1824, aged 57.

So that was a little bit about the artist and now to delve into the much more colourful life of the sitter of this painting, Anne Françoise Elisabeth Lange.  She was born in Genoa in 1772.  Her mother and father were both musicians who with their company of players, travelled throughout Europe performing in musical shows.  The young Anne Françoise soon became a young child performer.  At the age of sixteen she made her first performance at the famous Comédie-Francais as a pensionnaire, and five years later she was promoted to the position of a sociétaire.  It is an interesting theatrical hierarchy.  A pensionnaire is promoted to a societaire by a decree of the Ministry of Culture, from names put forward by the general administrator of the Comédie-Française.  Once one has achieved the rank of a sociétaire, an actor automatically becomes a member of the Société des Comédiens-Français and receives a share of the profits plus they also receive a number of shares in the Société to which he or she is contractually linked.

Triumph followed triumph in her rolls and soon she became a notable performer in Paris.  The turning point came in 1793 when she appeared in a play which had Royalist connotations and as Paris was in the clutch of the Revolution anything alluding to royalty or the monarchy was taboo and the theatre was shut down and the play’s author and the actors were arrested.  She spent two periods incarceration and narrowly escaped the guillotine thanks to having friends in “high places”.

Elisabeth Lange bore a daughter, Anne-Elisabeth Palmayre  to her wealthy lover, Hoppé, a wealthy banker from Hamburg and two years later bore a son to another lover, Michel-Jean Simons, a Belgian supplier to the French army, whom she later married, after which her acting career virtually came to an end.  Disaster struck Simms’ business and he was ruined almost leaving the family destitute.  Michel-Jean Simons died at the family’s Swiss home in 1810 and his wife Elisabeth Lange died six years later in Florence.

Mademoiselle Lange as Venus by Anne-Louis Girodet (1798)

Miss Lange was both very talented and extremely beautiful.  She had approached the artist, Girodet, to paint her portrait.  He duly obliged and depicted her as Venus, in which she held the pose seen in depictions of the Birth of Venus but in this painting it is Cupid who holds the mirror up to Venus for her to study her reflection.  He exhibited the painting at the 1798 Salon exhibition but the sitter was horrified by her depiction and demanded that Girodet should remove it from the exhibition and from public view.  Furthermore she refused to pay Girodet the agreed amount for the painting.  The artist was furious and in an act of revenge took the painting out of the exhibition, removed it from its frame and ripped it up.  He then sent the pieces to Mademoiselle Lange.  However his revenge was not complete as he decided to paint another portrait of Elisabeth Lange but this time showing her in a very unfavourable light.  He rushed off a satirical painting of Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë  in just a few days.   Eighteenth-century artists sometimes portrayed people as mythological characters to highlight their virtues but this time Girodet wanted to highlight Mademoiselle Lange’s vices.   Danaë was one of the mortals loved by the Greek god Zeus, who transformed himself into a shower of gold and fell upon her. Girodet shows Miss Lange as a prostitute greedily catching and gathering the gold coins in a sheet.   In the painting Girodet has featured a turkey with peacock feathers wearing a wedding ring, symbolizing her final lover and husband Michel-Jean Simons whom she married for his fortune, and to the bottom right we have a bizarre mask with the features of another of her lovers, Lord Lieuthraud, with a gold piece stuck in one of its eye sockets.  Look at the mirror she holds.  It is cracked and this symbolises her inability to see herself as she is, or how Girodet saw her – vain, adulterous and avaricious.

This painting is now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.