Inspiration often comes from my daily grind. I’ve said it many times before and today is no different. I bought a bottle of spring water and imagine my surprise, as I see a naked goddess obscuring her face, lying across an ocean wave, surrounded by cherubs as its logo. I laugh out loud, of course I would notice that, as I quench my thirst.
I am familiar with the story and imagery of the birth of Venus, though it is the painting by Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486) that I envisage first. You know the one, where Venus is standing on a seashell modestly covering her herself with her hands and hair. (I must confess, I am also reminded of the fresco from Pompei, Casa di Venus, 1st century AD, but only because of my interest in Roman history.) Interestingly, in Cabanel version of Venus’ birth, the imagery of her chariot seashell is abandoned in favour of focusing our attention on her form and beauty.
Like the Greek Aphrodite, Venus was the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex and desire. She was in particular a favourite goddess of Julius Caesar. He believed strongly that she brought him success during times of war and thus becoming a deity also associated later with victory. In general, the Roman’s adoration for Venus was celebrated often in many pagan religious festivals and central to their way of life. The Roman poet Virgil, for instance, saw her as the mother of Aeneas and a descendant of the Roman people. Like the Greeks, the Roman’s also believed that Venus arose from the foam of the sea, before being carried ashore.
Alexandre Cabanel, in his own interpretation of her theatrical birth, shows us a very dreamy seductive Venus lazing over gentle waves. Interestingly, art historians have often said that the mythological theme of the birth of Venus used by Cabanel was just a pretext to show a painting of a nude figure. That is probably true, but to Cabanel’s credit, he ticks all the right boxes, by adhering to official standards of artistic taste and decency of the time. Alexandre Cabanel was no fool! He was a master painter of historical, classical and religious subjects in the academic style. Interestingly, he was also a renowned portraitist, who refused to travel outside his native France to accept work.
The painting has met some interesting criticism and generally praise over time. In short, it created a sensation when it was first shown at the Salon (art exhibition) of 1863, where it was bought by the French Emperor, Napoleon III, for his own private collection. I imagine that Cabanel’s Venus probably still stirs the imagination, for those lucky enough to see the painting in person at the Musee d’Orsay. Whether we glimpse the goddess, as an object of desire or simply for her beauty, is ultimately up to the viewer.