Visual Culture

A Look at Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in Pop Culture

Abigail Cain
Jul 26, 2018 9:59PM

Today, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (ca. 1486) is everywhere. The early Renaissance painter’s rendition of the goddess of love has been used to sell Reebok sneakers, suitcases, and Adobe Illustrator software; inspired photoshoots and music videos featuring the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga; and versions of it graced the cover of The New Yorker twice. The painting has become an indispensable part of the Western art historical canon—so much so that when someone starts an Instagram of Timothée Chalamet photoshopped into famous artworks, there he is as Zephyr, hovering beside Venus as she drifts to shore.

But the ubiquity of The Birth of Venus was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, for several centuries, it was more or less unimaginable.

Botticelli, born around 1445, certainly did earn acclaim during his lifetime. Trained in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi, one of Florence’s leading painters, the young man quickly became a favorite of the Medici family after opening his own workshop in 1470. (The Birth of Venus was one such commission, for the home of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.) By 1481, Pope Sixtus IV was commissioning Botticelli to decorate Rome’s recently completed Sistine Chapel.

But in the final years of his life, Botticelli’s work became overtly religious and heavily stylized, losing its earlier idealized naturalism. It was around this time that the artist became a devout follower of a fanatical reformist preacher; he may even have renounced his earlier, non-religious paintings. After his death in 1510, Botticelli’s work quickly faded from view.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that a subtle reassessment of the artist began to take root. Even Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who originally derided a Botticelli painting of the Madonna and Child as “so ugly that I’ve dared not show it to a human soul,” eventually came around. “As an artist he is incomparable,” he noted, decades later.  

Yet even then, it was Botticelli’s related work, Primavera (ca. 1477–82), that was his best known. It wasn’t until Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini organized a series of traveling exhibitions of the Italian Old Masters as a political move that The Birth of Venus developed its primacy among Botticelli’s oeuvre. Painted on canvas (rather than wood, like Primavera), it could be shipped internationally without the fear of warping or cracking. The piece was a smash hit in London, Paris, and San Francisco’s 1935 World’s Fair; and, finally, in 1940 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In some 74 days, the museum welcomed 290,000 visitors; newspapers reported that one in every 25 people in the city saw the work.

At present, the painting is the centerpiece of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The Birth of Venus depicts a moment from the Greek myth in which Kronos severs Uranus’s genitals and throws them into the sea; Venus, or Aphrodite, emerges fully formed from the foam of a cresting wave. Carried by a shell, the goddess drifts to shore in Cyprus. In Botticelli’s work, which pulls its imagery from a 15th-century poem by Agnolo Poliziano, she is propelled by the gentle breeze of Zephyr, the west wind, and balances on a giant scallop shell. A young woman, perhaps Hora of spring or one of the graces, runs to meet her, proffering a robe dotted with flowers.

Its mythological subject matter is significant. As John B. Nici notes in his book Famous Works of Art—and How They Got That Way, it is the “first monumental female nude of a pagan goddess since the ancient world, and for that reason alone it must have raised eyebrows.”

The Birth of Venus has since become a standard of beauty. As such, it’s also become something to rebel against, a way to call attention to racist and sexist ideas of attractiveness. The image has been used endlessly as a marketing tool, parodied and leveraged to signify quality and culture. In fact, writes Stefan Weppelmann in the catalogue for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2016 exhibition “Botticelli Reimagined,” the painting’s “perpetual international reiterations have ultimately led to its becoming a general shorthand for Western high art per se.”

Below, we trace the endless ways Botticelli’s Venus has been remixed and reborn in fine art and in pop culture—from Andy Warhol to Monty Python.

Lady Gaga, “Applause” (2013)

The cover of Lady Gaga’s 2013 album Artpop was designed by Jeff Koons, featuring one of the Neo-Pop artist’s signature blue gazing balls placed strategically between the pop star’s legs. Behind her, slivers of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne fan out in an art historical mashup. Koons has said his intention was to present Gaga in the role of Venus, to reflect “the pursuit and the enjoyment of aesthetics and of beauty. And of the desire to continually have transcendence.”

But the Botticelli references extended beyond just the album cover—in the music video for the song “Applause,” the singer dons a smattering of seashells and a voluminous blonde wig to become Venus herself (a look she’d previewed during a performance at the MTV VMAs earlier that year). And in another Artpop song explicitly titled “Venus,” Gaga pens a synthpop ode to the goddess of love.

The New Yorker (1992 and 2014)  

Susan Davis, May 25, 1992, 1992. © Susan Davis and The New Yorker. Courtesy of The New Yorker.

Roz Chast, Venus on the Beach, August 4, 2014. © Roz Chast and The New Yorker. Courtesy of The New Yorker.


Yes, Botticelli’s Venus is a cover girl. The Renaissance painting has been the subject of at least two New Yorker cover illustrations since the 1990s. In the first, for a May 1992 issue, illustrator Susan Davis replaced Zephyr’s gentle breeze with the hot air of a blow dryer. Venus, clothed in a fluffy white robe and clutching a round brush in her other hand, is clearly primping. It’s a humorous take on the original painting, which depicts the goddess emerging from the sea in all her natural, unadorned beauty. Yet as au naturel as she may be, Botticelli’s Venus became an idealized standard of beauty—an image of perfection that non-goddesses needed blowouts and makeup to rival.

In the decades since Davis’s cover, we’ve seen the introduction of the internet, cell phones, and social media. Each new technological development has made it easier to share and replicate images, including world-famous artworks such as The Birth of Venus. Thus, in Roz Chast’s cover for the August 4, 2014, issue, Venus is washed ashore only to be greeted by a swarm of iPhone camera lenses, rather than a soft breeze and a delicate robe.

Dr. No (1962)

Even James Bond got a little taste of The Birth of Venus. In 1958, novelist Ian Fleming published his sixth novel about Agent 007; chapter eight found him on a Jamaican shore. “The whole scene, the empty beach, the green and blue sea, the naked girl with the strands of fair hair, reminded Bond of something,” Fleming wrote. “He searched his mind. Yes, she was Botticelli’s Venus, seen from behind.” The book was soon adapted into a movie, 1962’s Dr. No, which featured Ursula Andress as that (now bikini-clad) girl. She plays Honey Ryder, a Jamaican shell diver who comes in from the surf clutching two large conches—a nod to Venus, borne over the waves on a shell of her own.

Forty years later, in Die Another Day (2002), Halle Berry got a Botticelli moment of her own when she played agent Jinx Johnson opposite Pierce Brosnan’s Bond.

Rip Cronk, Venice on the Half-Shell (1978)

Rip Cronk, Venus on the Half Shell, 1981, at Venice Beach, CA, 1983. Photo by Rob Corder, via Flickr.

Venus got a SoCal makeover in this series of murals by artist Rip Cronk. As a muralist-in-residence for Los Angeles’s Social and Public Art Resource Center in the 1970s and ’80s, Cronk received a commission to complete Venice on the Half-Shell (1981), his first large-scale interpretation of Botticelli’s work. Cronk’s 20th-century Venus wears roller skates, short-shorts, leg warmers, and a crop top; she’s also no longer a blonde. Half of a giant clam shell hovers behind her as she skates leisurely down the Venice Beach boardwalk.

When years of weather and graffiti ruined the work, which was originally on display in the Venice Pavilion, he painted a second version: Venice Reconstituted (1989). “Even a very famous painting won’t be seen by the number of people who will see this,” Cronk told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. He interpreted the mural a third time in 2010, titling it Venice Kinesis in a reference to the neighborhood’s continuing evolution.

Yin Xin, Venus, after Botticelli (2008)

It was a moment with Mary Magdalene, rendered by French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour, that precipiated Yin Xin’s artistic career. “I’m from China, I grew up with a Communist education, but the painting touched me,” the artist told Women’s Wear Daily in 2016. “It was able to transcend religion and culture. I wanted to know what was behind it, to find the soul of the artist.” Today, Xin’s paintings are characterized by the way he reworks canonical Western art to include Chinese characteristics—and Venus, after Botticelli (2008) offers a prime example.

The canvas, cropped to show only the goddess’s head, reveals long, wavy locks that have been transformed from blonde to black; her facial features now read as Asian rather than European. As Stefan Weppelmann writes in the catalogue for the V&A’s 2016 show “Botticelli Reimagined,” Xin’s painting, “in its combination of Western and Far Eastern elements, stresses how much our perception of a cultural artefact is dependent on and determined by the culture that produced it.”

David LaChapelle, Rebirth of Venus (2009)

The fashion world has long been interested in Venus, from an early American Vogue cover to Elsa Schiaparelli’s flower-studded evening dress to Dolce & Gabbana’s skintight collage. Although photographer David LaChapelle retired from shooting for fashion magazines in 2006 to focus on art, he, too, shares a fascination with Botticelli’s goddess.

Rebirth of Venus (2009)reflects his Pop sensibilities, echoing the slick, carefully arranged, even Baroque compositions of his portraits of stars like Pamela Anderson, Lady Gaga, and Hillary Clinton. This shoot took place spontaneously in Hawaii, where the photographer lives, on a bluff overlooking the South Pacific. “The tropical setting was not exactly the Mediterranean that would have inspired Botticelli’s palette; the colors are punchier,” LaChapelle told British Vogue. In his version, Venus is tanned and toned, wearing only a golden crown and a pair of sparkly teal heels. Unlike Botticelli’s original, there’s an air of raw sexuality—emphasized by the shell, which has become a symbol for her genitals rather than a platform to ride across the waves.

Awol Erizku, Beyoncé’s pregnancy and maternity portraits (2017)

Much like Xin, photographer Awol Erizku replaces the white models of Old Master paintings with black ones in his portraits. So it’s little surprise that the series of pregnancy (and later, maternity) portraits he took of Beyoncé last year practically ooze art historical references. (Pitchfork even asked a trained art historian to analyze the images.)

In images released to announce her pregnancy, Beyoncé claims the role of Venus, often echoing the demure pose of Botticelli’s goddess by holding her hands in front of her breasts and cradling her belly. The lush flower arrangement in the background of one image riffs on the pink blooms that tumble through the air in the 15th-century painting.

A maternity portrait, taken after the twins were born, references The Birth of Venus more explicitly, with Beyoncé’s standing pose and floor-length, ruffled robe. Yet, unlike the goddess, she gazes towards the camera. As Andrianna Campbell notes, “Bey’s image underscores this contemporary moment where the model, as both patron and matriarch, can control the dissemination of her likeness to a broad audience via social media.”

Andy Warhol, Venus (1985)

In 2014, a cache of Warhols were discovered—not in a dusty basement or a flea market, but on a series of decades-old floppy discs. Warhol, who first encountered a personal computer at Sean Lennon’s 9th birthday party, signed on in 1985 as a spokesperson for Commodore (Apple’s then-rival). He was intrigued by the possibility of computer-assisted drawing, and used ProPaint to craft digital versions of his self-portraits and signature Campbell’s soup cans. The previous year, he’d completed a print series entitled “Details of Renaissance Portraits,” in which he cropped, flattened, simplified, and recolored portions of works, including The Birth of Venus. So it’s little surprise that Venus makes an appearance in these computer-based artworks, albeit with a third eye courtesy of the copy-and-paste tool.

Terry Gilliam, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

After taking an art history course, director and comedian Terry Gilliam told the BBC in 2016 that Botticelli’s Venus “was always in the back of [his] mind.” We see her first in the cut-out animations of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, of which Gilliam was a member. Venus, standing quietly on her half-shell, is provoked into an energetic dance number replete with leaps and high kicks.

Later, for Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Uma Thurman was cast as the goddess herself. Her entrance through the palace’s fountain in a monumental clamshell animates Botticelli’s iconic painting—throwing in an audience of dumbfounded European nobles, as well. “I suppose I like the idea of modernizing paintings,” Gilliam explained. “They had their context in their own time, now let’s take it and take it off the wall of the museum and put it on television and make people laugh or smile or even…go to the museum to see it for real.”

Abigail Cain