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 ’s David
is the universal example of contrapposto, and ’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.