Venus Anadyomene  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
Image:Aphrodite from Pompeii.jpg
Venus Anadyomene (Pompeii) by unknown. This mural from Pompeii is believed to be based on Apelles', Venus Anadyomene, brought to Rome by Augustus.

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Venus Anadyomene ("Venus Rising From the Sea") is one of the iconic representations of Aphrodite, made famous in a much-admired painting by Apelles, now lost, but described in Pliny's Natural History, with the anecdote that the great Apelles employed Campaspe, a mistress of Alexander the Great, for his model. According to Athenaeus, in Deipnosophistae. A scallop shell, often found in Venus Anadyomenes, is a symbol of the female vulva.


The image represents the birth of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, as she emerges from the waters. According to Greek mythology Aphrodite was born fully adult from the sea, which perpetually renewed her virginity. A motif of the goddess wringing out her hair is often repeated. The subject was often repeated in Antiquity, a fourth-century sculptural representation from a Gallo-Roman villa in Aquitania (Louvre) testifying to the motif's continued viability in Late Antiquity.

Apelles' painting was brought to Rome, but was in badly damaged condition by the time of Pliny: listing Apelles' best paintings, he noted "[Another of] Venus emerging from the sea, dedicated by the late Augustus of blessed memory in the shrine of Caesar his [adoptive-]father, which is called "The Anadyomene", praised in Greek verses like other works, conquered by time but undimmed in fame."

The image of Venus Anadyomene is one of the very few images that survived in Western Europe in its classical appearance, from Antiquity into the High Middle Ages. Jean Seznec instances two images of Venus among constellations illustrating 14th-century Provençal manuscripts of Matfre Ermengau of Béziers' Breviari d'amor, in which Venus is represented nude, in the sea: "This extraordinary conservatism may perhaps be explained by the fact that the culture of the last pagan centuries remained alive longer in Provence than elsewhere."

Renaissance and post-Renaissance

Through the desire of Renaissance artists reading Pliny to emulate Apelles, and if possible to outdo him, Venus Anadyomene was taken up again in the fifteenth century: besides Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) (shown on the left), another early Venus Anadyomene is the bas-relief by Antonio Lombardo from Wilton House (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Titian's Venus Anadyomene (shown on the right), c. 1525, formerly a long-term loan by the Duke of Sutherland, was 2003's acquisition of the year at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Venus Anadyomene offered a natural subject for a fountain: the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC has a lifesize bronze plumbed so that water drips from Venus' hair, modelled by a close follower of Giambologna, late sixteenth century. Rococo sculptures of the subject were modestly draped across the hips, but bolder nudes appealed to male nineteenth-century patrons: Théodore Chassériau executed the subject in 1835 and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' Venus Anadyomene, completed after many years in 1848, is one of the painter's most celebrated works (Musée Condé, Chantilly, France). Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus of 1863 reworks the Pompeiian fresco, then recently rediscovered.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) painting 'Naissance de Venus' (The Birth of Venus) (shown on the left), was shown at the Paris Salon of 1863, and was bought by Napoleon III for his own personal collection. Robert Rosenblum, comment on Cabanel's painting is that "This Venus hovers somewhere between an ancient deity and a modern dream" ... "and the ambiguity of her eyes, that seem to closed but that a close look revelas that she is awake." ... "A nude who could be asleep or awake is specially formidable for a male viewer"

The 1879 painting of the same name by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (shown on the right), which reimagines Botticelli's composition, is another testament to the theme's continuing popularity among the academic painters of the late nineteenth century.

Such a highly conventionalized theme, with undertones of eroticism justified by its mythological context, was ripe for modernist deconstruction; in 1870 Arthur Rimbaud evoked the image of a portly Clara Venus ("famous Venus") with all-too-human blemishes (déficits) in a sardonic poem that introduced cellulite to high literature: La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates (the fat under the skin appears in slabs).

Pablo Picasso recast the image of Venus Anadyomene in the central figure of his seminal painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), a modernist deconstruction of the icon, and one of the incunabula of Cubism.

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