The representation of Venus in art history
She is the quintessential embodiment of love, feminine allure, and the coming of new life. The goddess Venus is undoubtedly one of the most widely-referenced divinities of the classical world. Her story originally hails from Greco-Roman mythology: born from the severed genitals of Uranus, she springs up from the ocean and drifts to shore on the shell of a clam. However, those not attuned to classical mythology are equally likely to recognize some of the countless contemporary representations of Venus in art which have followed. From faithful visual retellings of her birth to progressive feminist depictions of womanhood, Artsper is exploring the truly marvelous representation of Venus in art over the course of history.
To some, the representation of Venus begins in Paleolithic Europe, with such creations as the 30,000 BC Venus of Willendorf, excavated in Austria in 1908. Now, you may note that this limestone figurine predates the refined mythological character of Venus by some considerable margin. Why then, might we regard this sculpture as an early depiction of Venus? The answer is simple. When we speak about the representation of Venus in art, we really refer to a development in the representation of womanhood.
The use of sacred objects has been central to worship practices throughout history. This is primarily a means to tangibly visualize the attributes of the divine. It is certainly reasonable to suggest that this was the intended purpose of the figurine discovered in Willendorf. The anthropomorphic representation of this goddess invites the viewer to consider her divine qualities through a recognizably human form. Her bosom and lower stomach have been notably exaggerated, which draws our attention to the fertile capacity of women. Indeed, what this 4-inch figurine marks is the inception of the artistic fascination for the female form, and the symbolic value it holds.
Venus in antiquity
Now onto the traditional character of Venus. The symbolism of the goddess is owed to classical mythology. She is a divinity of Mount Olympus and the incarnation of beauty, fertility, and the beginning of life. Early artistic depictions of the goddess have been traced back to classical sculpture, as you can see here. The representations of Venus in art which emerged during this time contributed to a wider artistic goal. This was to materially replicate that which was taught by classical mythology. Sculptural representations of gods were destined for temples and other places of worship, as objects of meditation and prayer.
We find a salient example of this in Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch. This is preserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It is a quintessentially classical representation of the goddess. She stands in a relaxed contrapposto stance, looking ahead at what is to come. We are invited to inspect the womanly contours of her torso. The covering of her lower half is a recognizably Hellenic characteristic of the sculpture. This technique sought to preserve the modesty of the female form in artistic representation.
The Venus Callipyge, dating back to the 1st or 2nd century BC represents Venus in marble. The sculptor invites us to dwell on the nature of the goddess’ physical beauty, through a purposeful rendering of her stance. She raises her peplos above her head as she looks down behind herself. Certain art historians believe that she could be admiring herself in the reflection of the ocean, an artistic decision which would gesture to the miraculous story of her birth.
The (re)birth of Venus
To better understand the post-classical representations of Venus, it is important to understand the artistic trajectory of the centuries which followed. The Renaissance was spurred on by a renewed fascination for classical antiquity, and thus new (and incredibly sophisticated) representations of Venus were brought to light. These new depictions were grounded in the revolutionary pictorial and compositional techniques of the time. The image of Venus became a clearly defined and commonly applied motif, through which artists could articulate themes of love, beauty, rebirth and fertility.
One of the most iconic representations of Venus which hails from this period is that of Botticelli. This stands in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The historia (this being a visual recreation of a pivotal scene or moment) depicts the moment of the goddess’ birth from a clam shell. Botticelli’s artistic direction would certainly have been informed by the epic poem by the Neoplatonic poet Poliziano, entitled Le Stanze per la Giostra, which meticulously details the scene of Venus’ birth. Indeed, the themes of rebirth and new beginnings were central to the entire creative trajectory of the Renaissance. This is embodied by the image of Venus.
Most notably during the Renaissance we see a continuation of the anthropomorphic representations of gods. Venus rises from the water, her hair billows in the wind and her bodily form, at first glance, reflects that of a woman. Upon greater inspection, we can see that her corporeal proportions are slightly skewed. This has been regarded as an intentional conceptual distinction between Venus’ divine womanhood and that of the human viewer. Botticelli thus reminds us that we may not possess Venus’ womanly nature in its entirety, but we might in ourselves partially recognize her qualities.
Equally, the Renaissance also saw rise to the representation of Venus in a stance known as Venus pudica. That is, a purposeful rendering of Venus so that her lower body is concealed from view. The proliferation of Venus pudica during the Renaissance marked a considerable effort to censor the female body, and its association with sexuality and eroticism. In this way, Botticelli’s Venus embodies rather more themes of fertility and rebirth, than feminine sensuality and beauty.
The Italian Renaissance
Next, Titian’s Venus of Urbino ushered in a new representation of Venus. This representation exploited the deeply erotic connotation of the mythological Venus in the representation of the human woman. A visual association with Venus is made through the use of Venus pudica, as the woman modestly covers her genitals. However, she makes direct eye contact with the viewer and reclines on her right elbow, clutching a handful of small flowers. A purposefully enticing canvas, the woman seems to render herself an object of desire, inviting the viewer’s gaze to roam around her nude body. The representation of Venus during the High Renaissance was multifaceted. Her image was used to convey both the eroticism of the female body (as somewhat of a commodity), as well as the theme of rebirth and new beginnings.
An early modern Venus
Moving away from the Renaissance, the essence of Venus’ representation remains the same in early modern art, yet what begins to arise in the 19th century is a distinguished sense of playfulness and theatricality. An example of this includes Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s The Pearl and The Wave, as seen above. Her arms are raised above her head and she smirks at the viewer.
The contemporary Venus
This playfulness has certainly continued into the contemporary world. Representations of Venus have taken on a new, progressive purpose art history. In fact, considerable efforts have been made to render the figure of Venus a more globalized appreciation for the female form, which still honors the iconic historia by Botticelli. There have also been efforts made to recharacterize Venus through a feminist, “un-Westernized” lens. Examples of this include Harmonia Rosales’ The Birth of Oshun, a postcolonial rendition of Botticelli’s historia. Directly mimicking the composition of Botticelli’s historia, the goddess’s black skin is interwoven with a beautiful gold tone.
Moreover, Alain Jacquet’s 1962 Camouflage Botticelli depicts a rendering of Venus which couples the connotation of life and “coming to fruition” of the traditional Venus with the industrial connotation of the Shell logo. Indeed, the motif of the “shell” upon which Venus rises out of the ocean has been playfully adapted to allude to global petroleum company. It has therefore been suggested that Jacquet’s visual depiction of Venus is a commentary on the advancement of industrial efforts in the 1960s.
An everlasting legacy
Finally, as our exploration of Venus draws to a close, we might conclusively agree that the representation of Venus in art history has certainly evolved. The image of the goddess has gestured to womanhood, beauty, and lust just as it has feminism, the democratization of Western art, and the progression of capitalist economy. For what has evolved into a truly multifaceted and complex motif today, it is quite incredible to remember that the story of Venus originated in classical antiquity: over 2000 years ago. Discover artists inspired by Venus on Artsper, from Iconographia to Massimiliano Pelletti!
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