“Venus of Urbino,” Titian’s Iconic Painting, Explained

Sarah Dotson
Aug 27, 2020 3:26PM

During the 1530s, Titian finished his painting Venus of Urbino. In doing so, the Renaissance master unknowingly created a work that contained what would become one of the most identifiable subjects and tropes in art history: the reclining nude.

Since its creation, viewers have been scandalized by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, but artists across centuries have looked to the painting for inspiration. Some artists have attempted to create works in the likeness of Titian’s Venus, while others took the classical subject and dismantled it to reveal unsavory truths about the societies in which they lived or to challenge conventional ideals of beauty.

But what is it that makes Titian’s Venus of Urbino so seductive? Why has this painting, and this depiction of Venus, resonated far beyond the period in which it was created? Though Titian became one of the most important artists in history, he was once a student of other great painters of his time. And in order to understand what makes Venus of Urbino transcend time, we have to go back to Titian’s humble beginnings.

Who was Titian?

Titian, Self-portrait, ca. 1562. © Museo Nacional del Prado. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.


By most historical accounts, Titian was born around 1490 in a small town north of Venice called Pieve di Cadore. He and his brother were sent to live with an uncle in Venice when Titian was about 10, and his career as an artist began from there in notable workshops throughout the city. From working with Sebastiano Zuccato (a well-known mosaics expert) to the studios of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini (brothers whose eclectic painting styles were informed by a wide range of influences), Titian eventually landed under the tutelage of Renaissance painter Giorgione. It was here, working closely with Giorgine, that he developed the techniques that would come to define the Venetian style of painting in the Italian Renaissance.

At the time of Giorgione’s death in 1510, Titian was tasked with completing an unfinished work by his teacher. The work, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (ca. 1510), undoubtedly paved the way for Titian’s masterpiece. Sleeping Venus was one of the first large-scale nude paintings of a woman in Venice—at the time, images like this would have been produced in small scale for cassoni, which were elaborate chests commissioned before weddings to hold the bride’s possessions and celebrate the marriage.

Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, ca. 1510. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the nude had yet to become prevalent in painting, sculptures of idealized nude women were common going all the way back to ancient Greece. In classical sculpture, the sensual “Venus pudica” pose played a counterpart to the machismo of heroic male sculptures. Classic works utilizing the Venus pudica feature goddesses depicted in the same manner as Giorgione’s Venus—the S-curved nudes modestly shield their breasts or pubic area from consumption. The reclining pose and suggestively placed hand of the subject in Sleeping Venus, reminiscent of the Venus pudica, would reappear in Titian’s 1534 depiction of Venus.

Titian gained local success in Venice, where he was commissioned to paint portraits, public altarpieces, frescoes, and even lewd images that were popular with Italian aristocrats. He reached his mature style after living in the city for several years and began working on commissions for various notable patrons, developing relationships with Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, as well as the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, and the Pope’s grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

In 1530, he met with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, in Bologna. According to Giorgio Vasari’s collection of Renaissance biographies The Lives of the Artists (1550), “[In Bologna] he made a most beautiful portrait of his Majesty in full armor, which so pleased him, that he caused a thousand crowns to be given to Tiziano.” Titian became the principal painter for the court: He painted Charles V on horseback, victorious after the Battle of Muhlberg, and in a more intimate portrait from 1548, where Charles V sits in a regal chair, looking weary and slightly civilian. Former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote of the painting in his 2014 book World Order, “A haunting portrait by Titian from 1548 at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek reveals the torment of an eminence who cannot reach spiritual fulfillment or manipulate the, to him, ultimately secondary levers of hegemonic rule.”

The last 25 years of Titian’s life were mostly devoted to creating work for Charles V’s son, King Philip II of Spain. He completed multiple portraits of the monarch as well as a series of mythological paintings. Titian spent much of this period actively producing new work until his death in Venice in 1576, likely from the plague.

What do we see in Venus of Urbino?

A woman looks at Titan’s Venus of Urbino at the Doge's Palace in Venice. Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP. Image via Getty Images.

Titian painted Venus of Urbino (a moniker given to the painting at an undefined date after its creation) from 1532 to 1534, relatively early in his career. Just as other Renaissance masterpieces have come to unanimously represent art-historical terms and themes—the casual stance of Michelangelo’s David is the universal example of contrapposto, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man defined perfect anatomical proportions—Venus of Urbino is the reclining nude in its purest form.

Venus lounges seductively on a crushed red chaise, bright white linens and fluffy pillows rumpled beneath her. Her posture is languid and casual, one hand draped between her thighs and the other barely holding a posy of flowers. The proportions of her body are idealized, with a long torso and petite feet. Venus’s skin is luminescent—she is the source of light in a dark interior. And she is nude, save for a few accessories: An iridescent pearl hangs from her ear on a slight gold chain, a jeweled bracelet adorns her wrist, and a sliver of a pinky ring can be spotted on her illicitly placed hand.

When looking at the painting, the viewer is led from Venus’s sultry gaze down her body to the right side of the canvas, where a little dog is curled at her feet and two women are pulling garments, presumably for the central figure, out of a chest in the background. Dogs are widely accepted as symbols of fidelity in the history of art, which makes sense within the context of this commission. Though accounts vary, the prevailing narrative is that the painting was commissioned by the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, who hired Titian to create the work as a gift to his wife, Giulia da Varano. The painting hung in their private chambers, and some believe it was meant to give the young bride instruction on the art of intimacy.

From the composition to the use of color, and even to the landscape in the back, there are many key elements that Titian’s Venus shares with her predecessor, the subject of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. But there is one key difference: Her gaze. Titian’s Venus stares out at the viewer unabashedly. She demands attention, she provokes longing. For an artist to create a work of such overt desire, the subject needed to be rooted in allegory or fantasy in order for the painting to be accepted by society of the time. By making the subject of the painting Venus, Titian was able to depict not only a nude woman, but a nude woman daring her viewer to stare back.

This daring was not only a shock to Renaissance viewers, but also to the Victorians three centuries later. Writer Mark Twain famously commented on the painting in his 1880 autobiographical travelogue A Tramp Abroad, calling it “the foulest, the vilest, the obsceneist picture the world possesses.” Twain’s comment, often taken out of context, goes on to point out the hypocrisy of Victorian culture. As Twain further elaborates, if he were to describe, in text, the lust behind her gaze and the furtive actions of her hand, there would be an uproar, but since “art has its privileges,” she is widely available for consumption without question.

What is the legacy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino?

Venus of Urbino, a continuation of the Venus pudica before her, went on to inspire generations of artists, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Édouard Manet, Amedeo Modigliani, and Mickalene Thomas. Manet’s Olympia (1863), however, is probably the most direct response to Titian’s painting.

Everything that is soft about Venus of Urbino is hard in Olympia. Manet took the Venus of Urbino and stripped it of its curves and contours, creating a flat, harsh depiction of a courtesan waiting for her client. He replaces the loyal slumbering dog with a restless black cat, and instead of bringing garments into the room, a maid delivers a bouquet of flowers. Olympia is also donned in jewelry, though hers is less delicate—a black ribbon is tied around her neck, and a giant flower is pinned behind her ear. In contrast to Venus’s flowing, plaited gold locks, Olympia’s hair is slicked back, and the rumpled bed she perches atop looks more utilitarian, though the silk draped beneath her suggests she works with high-class clients.

The critical reception to Olympia was poor: “They are raining insults upon me!” Manet wrote to his friend poet Charles Baudelaire after he exhibited the work at the 1865 Salon in Paris. Although other artists like Francisco de Goya and Ingres had reworked Titian’s Venus in paintings like La Maja Desnuda (ca. 1797) and Grande Odalisque (1814), Manet didn’t respect the centuries-long cardinal rule of painting the female nude: She must be idealized.

French writer Émile Zola offered a different perspective of the work, saying of Olympia, “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”

Since Manet, many artists have taken on the format of the reclining nude to tell the truth of their time or criticize the status quo: Mickalene Thomas and Yasumasa Morimura are just two contemporary artists who have taken on interpretations of the reclining nude to bring a less homogeneous perspective to art history.

From Titian to Manet to Thomas, the evolution of Venus reflects a changing world with changing values. Worked and reworked throughout the last five centuries, Venus of Urbino remains an ideal to be exalted, dismantled, questioned, and revered.

Sarah Dotson