The Birth of Venus by Gustave Moreau
Images of Venus date back to the Greek sculptor Apelles, the first known to have sculpted the goddess rising from the sea. On a visit to Florence in 1859, Moreau copied another famous Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli’s; it is one of history’s greatest renditions of the scene. A mythological canvas that survived Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, the picture presents a figure of Venus Pudica, a Venus in modest pose; one hand covers her sex, the other, her breasts. The Neo-Platonists, a circle with whom Botticelli regularly discoursed, perhaps inspired his Birth of Venus (in addition to another of Botticelli’s stupendous canvas, Primavera). Plato’s earthly love, or the Neo-Platonic’s Venus Vulgaris, symbolized beauty found in the material world and the sexual nature of procreativity, an image that stood in contrast, though not opposition, to the figure of Venus Coelestis, pure, sublime and eternal love. Venus Vulgaris is generally shown adorned, as Moreau chose to depict the goddess in his initial treatment of the Venus theme; Venus Coelestis is typically naked and wholly without ornamentation as to indicate her transcendence of the material world. The latter Venus is rendered in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and again in Gustave Moreau’s 1866 painting of the scene.
Moreau’s first real return to the concept of a Venus after copying Botticelli was in the composition, Venus Emerging from the Waters, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The figure in this painting bares more semblance to paintings of Andromeda or Galetea, than typical Venuses. The symmetrical arrangement focuses attention on a stiff, draped figure, almost without expression, flanked on either side by river deities. The Israeli Museum’s Venus appears scornful of the mortal world and the feeble beings in it. The picture was quickly purchased, though, despite its being a rather stiff academic handling.
Moreau’s second interpretation of the Venus theme related more closely to both Botticelli’s painting and Hesiod’s original telling of the story in Theogony (188-200.) In Birth of Venus (Venus appearing to the Fishermen), Moreau shows a traditional Venus Anadyomené, literally rising from the sea, in a pose that is the exact mirror image of Botticelli’s verecund and faithful Venus. Both figures are painted with long waves of golden hair. Birth of Venus (Venus appearing to the Fishermen), with meticulous, active, brushwork, also pays homage to Delacroix, and Moreau’s close friend and teacher, Chasseriau. This is most obvious in the figures of the fishermen gathered on the shore. With his painting Song of Songs (1853), Moreau had been criticized for palpably referencing these earlier Romantic masters, but in our picture he successfully synthesized the lessons learned from the study of both Delacroix and Chasseriau into his own unique style. Moreau’s finished Birth of Venus manages, however, to be a completely new vision of the scene.
Moreau’s fine modeling of Venus’s body makes her self-possessed, with a slightly bowed head. Perhaps only regarding the group at her feet, Moreau also might have drawn the gesture as a subtle respectful acknowledgement of Venus, Love, for humankind, without whom she would not exist. With striking beauty, she appears only half-aware of her power over pliant humanity. While in the Israel Museum’s painting of Venus Moreau portrayed an arrogant and triumphant Venus who ignores the lesser deities offering her shell and coral in adoring supplication, the Venus in Birth of Venus (Venus appearing to the Fishermen) is softly feminine, her eyes focused on the fishermen before her, and her hand and gesture a reaction to them. Venus’s gesture of gentle deference is directed at fishermen, in Phrygian caps, which sets the scene on the shores of ancient Greece. There is present in the work a traditional classical reference alongside a simple backdrop of uncluttered beach. The soft blush of sunset suffuses the entire picture field and this light illuminates the body of the goddess as if to indicate the natural world’s significant place in the contemplation of Plato’s heavenly Aphrodite.
Moreau’s Birth of Venus (Venus appearing to the Fishermen), in contrast to Botticelli’s huge canvas, is small. The highly finished panel is roughly contemporaneous with two of Moreau’s most widely recognized and important works, Orpheus of 1865 (bought immediately by the state, it now hangs in the Musée D’Orsay, Paris) and Diomedes Devoured by his Horses (Rouen, Musée de Beaux Arts) painted the following year. Both these large-scale works, presented at the Salon the same year (1866), stirred controversy, affecting the public and critics alike. The caricaturist Cham declared, after reviewing the 1866 showing, that ‘Moreau had lost his mind in his extravagant symbolism’, while others, notably Maxime Du Camp and Armand Silvestre published admiring tributes. Moreau, however, failed to receive a prize that year, or the following, as the judges overlooked the artist again at the World’s Fair Exhibition, while they bestowed accolades on a large number of his colleagues.
Just as Dubufe forestalled the Salon of 1863 with his Venus, so too must Moreau have been affected by his contemporaries’ successes with the subject. The Salon of 1863, contained three Venuses of particular note: Amaury-Duval’s standing figure, described by the critic Castagnary as ‘traditional…no new accent, no new feeling,’ Alexander Cabanel’s writhing, horizontal figure who covers her face in a hollow act of modesty, and in a less direct reference, Manet’s Olympia, a canvas that ferociously referenced Titian’s great Venus of Urbino. It was arguably Manet’s painting that became the next chapter in a discussion of the nude as an iconographic representation of Love in its many forms.