Analysis Of The Painting Venus Of Urbino By Titan

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Venus of Urbino, an oil painting completed in 1538 by Tiziano Vecellio. Simply known as Titan. This 1.19m x 1.65m painting was commissioned by Guidobaldo Della Rovere who later became Duke of Urbino. The intention of this painting was for a domestic purpose and private viewing of his marriage with Giulia Varano. In the painting, it depicts a naked woman sprawled across the bed sheets, a dog curled up on the bed and maids shown rummaging through what looks like to be a cassone; it shows one of the maids kneeling over and looking through the box and the other maid standing. 

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The scene is set in a familiar environment, showcasing the interior of a noble palace which automatically signifies wealth. There are many symbols and elements presented in the canvas; most commonly relating to romance, wealth and fidelity. The red flowers on her hand symbolise love, and the white sheets representing purity. Allegedly, the reason for the commission was that The Venus of Urbino was supposed to teach the wife, Giulia Varano, how to be the perfect Renaissance woman. It is evident through the dog beside Venus’ feet as a sleeping dog is typically associated with fidelity. Based on the iconography: the two cassoni and the curled little dog acts as a reminder of the marital obligations she would have to fulfil to her husband, such as being faithful and loyal. Especially during the period when Renaissance marriages weren’t viewed as purely personal but more of a ‘network’ so men could be prosperous and have a high status in society. 

The painting style tells the viewer that it was created during the Renaissance era; where the Europeans sought a new start, a cultural rebirth, a renaissance. The Renaissance was well known for its detailed and anatomically formed paintings. Its principles of classical aesthetics include simplicity, symmetry, calmness, and geometric purity. Realism and naturalism were a popular painting style at the time as artists sought to make objects, especially people, look more realistic. In this case, Venus of Urbino is a ‘realism’ piece as it rejects idealisation and focuses on ordinary scenes and subjects; capturing the ordinary rhythms of daily existence. It is apparent that the figure has a real form, real limbs and a real expression on her face. Not only does she look natural, but is placed in a natural setting. By studying the human anatomy and measuring proportions, it allows the audience to connect with the paintings in a more emotional sense with what the depicted figures were thinking and feeling. 

Considering that the Venus of Urbino was one of Titian’s most sensual works, it portrays a strong sense of erotism. For example, Venus’ gaze and her slight tilting of the head could be interpreted as part of its provocative nature. The juxtaposition between the sharp vertical and horizontal lines of the background and the figure emphasises her curves, bringing out her eroticism. Another significant factor is the use of flattering warms and pink tones, rich reds, dark rich greens and detailed patterned. Not only do these factors convey a sense of elegance and romance, but it also conveys wealth and could be seen as a reflection of the Duke’s most prized possession. The delicate chiaroscuro (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) that Titan was able to strategically capture enhances the softness of Venus’ skin and silky drapery, which creates a harmonious flow to the painting. He also utilised perspective to give the painting depth, with the tiles and walls being painted at a smaller ratio in relation to the naked figure. Several decades later, an attempt to subvert the views of society, art began to transform into something more drastic and unconventional meanwhile sparking controversy over this new profound movement. It is clear that classical artists were committed to telling a story with a moral and elevated purpose and the antique subjects from myth and history. Whereas early modernist painters were more focused on the contemporary and recent subjects, and do not often associate any stories to the painting but they do bring up criticism of society and classical art. 

Modernism started with Edouard Manet, who painted Olympia in 1863, the interpretation, however, was given that he wanted to paint her as a real prostitute instead of pretending to paint a goddess as an excuse to look at a naked woman. Olympia is another oil painting which derives its inspiration from Venus of Urbino. Unlike Titan’s precise and detailed classical style, Manet paints Olympia as almost an outline with clear evidence of loose and flat brushwork. He utilises cool and dull tones, blunt blues and greens and a more raw, unfinished, preliminary appearance. The flatter use of colours and limited shading makes the space shallow. The two artworks reflect the culture and period as being biased, even though both women are sprawled across the bedsheets with zero clothing, they are given a different interpretation. One is regarded as a symbol of prostitution while the other symbolises marriage. The confrontational gaze on Olympia as opposed to the sweet and soul-baring gaze on Venus produces mixed responses and emotions where people would see marriage as desirable and alluring, and prostitution as pitiful. Despite the obvious differences between the two pieces, they also share some similarities. Both present servants, an animal at the end of the bed, jewellery, possession of flowers, bed and the women both strike a similar pose, reclining in the middle of the canvas. Similarly, the figures in the background allow us to gain a sense of perspective in the room. 

To conclude, Venus of Urbino painted by Tiziano Vecellio commissioned by Guidobaldo della Rovere was a painting showing a wife’s marital obligations. This is indicated by the symbolism such as the sleeping dog representing fidelity and the child and woman to representing motherhood. One can assume that using Venus as the model raises particular standards in renaissance relationships and the expectations of being a wife. 

16 August 2021

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