And there, bubbling in the shimmery blue waters of the cytheran sea, there arose a young woman, with twirling red hair and beauty unparalleled by any other. She rose through the foam as though she was a pearl emerging from a newly cracked oyster. Floating she walked gracefully toward the shore and the creatures of the sea and sky looked upon her in awe as they stood in the presence of the newly born Goddess of Love and Beauty.
The image of the birth of Venus, the Roman goddess Love and Beauty, has been renowned by artists and literary creators throughout the ages. The first telling of the birth of Aphrodite was in the Theogony, a poem by Hesiod created sometime between 730-700 b.c in Greece. Known as Aphrodite, she was a beacon of love and sexuality in Greco-Roman culture. The name Aphrodite comes from the word aphros in Greek, meaning “seafoam” or “risen from foam.” The Romans adopted her as their goddess Venus. The goddess has been depicted in multiple pieces and expressions of art, whether it be in forms of literature, sculptures, or paintings, the tales of her beauty and allure have made her the muse for various creators. Venus has been depicted in several statues such as the Aphrodite Ourania and the Venus de Milo. There have also been several painted pieces depicting the goddess, three of the most famous versions of the painted Birth of Venus come from the artists Sandro Botticelli, Alexandre Cabanel, and William Adolphe-Bouguereau. All three of the artists created compositions that have been widely appreciated since their creation, each carries their own air of grace and beauty when describing the creation of the goddess, but which offers the most impactful in modern times?
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli was commissioned during the Renaissance period between the years 1403-1485 by Pierfrancesco de’Medici, who was part of the influential Medici family. This work portrays an accurate expression of the Birth of Venus as she emerges from the foam of the sea on a shell blown to shore to one of the Horai who awaits her to cloth her. This piece is serene, full of textured detail and balance between the West Wind and the Horai on shore. By far the most influential piece and the most iconic, this painting was the staple of Renaissance creating a dreamlike sequence; this painting is also one of the most accurate to the original story of Aphrodite’s birth with the Horai and surrounding scenery. The vast amount of details such as the roses and texture of the sea are appealing to many modern audiences, the color scheme which also incorporates many neutral but dashes of pastel color are as aesthetically pleasing. When asked, many recognize Botticelli’s piece to be “the most iconic” of the three. The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is by far one of the most widely recognized art pieces in history and is ranked in the top ten most famous paintings in the world.
The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabenel is by far a softer and lower-key piece. It shows a simple depiction of a sleeping venus laying on top of the ocean while little Cherub’s celebrate around her. It was composed between 1823-1889, and unlike Botticelli’s, it is an oil on canvas piece, suggesting a thicker in-person composition and a less translucent piece. However the painting itself still keeps its dreamlike qualities with the color scheme that has heavy emphasis on Venus’s porcelain like skin and her hand daintily thrown across her face as is she has only just begun to awaken. Cabanel’s piece was bought by Napoleon III. Just like Botecelli’s, Cabanel’s work has status of influence, this specific piece being one of the staples of his era. Despite being an academic piece, Cabanel’s art steps away from the more conservative Botecelli piece and into a more erotic piece without offending the public. Despite the beauty in its composition some feel that the painting appears “washed out,” a friend of mine even said that Venus looks like a “dead body.” Cabanel’s piece incorporates many elements of his time into the piece which shows Aphrodite’s awakening and the serenity of her birth.
The final version of the Birth of Venus overlaps with the commission of Cabanel’s piece, being finished in 1879. William-Adolphe Bouguereau drew inspiration from the original birth of venus, shying away from a more “modest” piece like both Cabanel and Botticelli. Her illustrates Venus in a “sensual” and “erotic” way, putting emphasis on the ideal body type and beauty of the goddess. Bouguereau stepped away from the typical modesty of art and became of the first artists to depict women in a stylish and sensual way. The painting like those before depicts Venus in the middle as the center of attention–much like Botticelli’s piece. Venus is adored by many looking upon her except they appear to be more like Nymphs rather than actual minor gods such as the Horai and the Wind. Bouguereau plays around with placement of his characters, adding depth to the painting (which Botticelli’s lacks) and warmth to his subjects (by using various shades of peach and warm cream colors to illustrate her vivaciousness instead of emphasizing the porcelain-like quality of Aphrodite’s skin, which is what Cabanel did). Both of the foundational ideas of the paintings are expressed in Bouguereau’s piece: the display of Aphrodite’s nakedness as well as the layering effects of adding different spectators to the scene to admire Aphrodite. Despite being of the less well known pieces, this was sometimes seen as Bouguereau’s most influential piece, and modern audiences are awestruck by the angelic nature that Aphrodite posses.
Modern audiences are still heavily influenced by the works of artists past, but even with these three paintings alone, it is revealed how historical art influences later creators. Each piece holds foundational elements from their time period, and each was significant to their audience. The admiration for the Birth of Venus is one that rises and falls like the tides, but like the sea which Aphrodite was born, artists have always found a fascinating with the birth of the beautiful goddess.
Photo Credits: Google Arts and Culture