The Birth of Venus Anaylsis Essay

The piece that I chose to write about is entitled The Birth of Venus and was painted by the French artist Nicolas Poussin. This painting was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1771. It was sold another time by the Hermitage Museum in 1932 when the Soviet government was desperate for western currency. It was then that it was acquired for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting was made in Italy in either the year 1635 or 1636. The medium that Poussin used was oils on canvas, and the size of the painting is roughly around 38 by 42 inches. This painting is considered to be included the Baroque period. (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Along side of the painting on display is a short description label accompanying it, which reads;

“The subject of this grand mythological painting remains a topic of lively debate: some see the birth of Venus, some see her triumphal parade, and others see the sea god Neptune’s marine procession. There is even disagreement as to whether Venus is depicted at all. The woman in the center might instead be Galatea, a sea nymph who is often shown riding in a cockleshell chariot drawn by dolphins. As reflected here, Poussin exercised great skill in introducing multiple meanings and rich ambiguity into his paintings of classical themes. This painting used to belong to Catherine the Great and still bears a Russian inscription on the frame and a Hermitage Museum inventory number on the lower left corner of the canvas. It was sold by the Soviet government in 1930.”

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Poussin’s The Birth of Venus is a scene of Venus being carried to the shore by an abundance of men, women, and angels. Venus is in the center of the scene, sitting on top of a shell that is being drawn by sea creatures. Venus and the woman to her left are holding up a pink cloth that flows in the wind. The woman on the right of Venus is supporting her arm being held up to hold the cloth. To the left of Venus is a muscular man standing on a shell that is being drawn by four horses. In his hand is a triton, which stems the belief that this scene may be about Neptune’s sea procession. A blue cloth is flowing in the wind behind him, sort of draping off of his back like a cape. Behind him are a man and a woman farther in the background. The man is standing in the water while the woman is sitting on what looks like a porpoise. On both sides of the center three women are two men with wreaths on on top of their heads, and they are blowing into what looks like horns. On the right side of the painting are three more figures.

One is a woman sitting on top of a rock with a white cloth underneath her bottom. Her back is facing towards the viewer and she seems to be looking towards the man on the other shell. She holds a green cloth on the top of her head with her right arm while resting on her left arm for support.There is also a tipped vase in front of the rock that is spilling water into the ocean. To her right is a muscular man holding a woman on his back. Behind the two is an orange yellow cloth flowing in the wind. In the front of venus is an cherub angel laying on an orange yellow cloth with it’s arms around the head of a sea creature. Above the pink cloth that Venus is holding up are six more cherub angels. Some are dropping flowers down on the congregation and some have their little bow and arrows out. There is a lot of clouds in the sky behind them. On the clouds to the left is a chariot being carried by doves with another angel in it. The women figures and the angels are pale skinned, which makes them more prominent in the painting. The men are tanned and toned, while the woman are curvacious and soft. The background of the painting is a landscape with some rocks and a mountain in the back left. The colors that Poussin chose were mostly flesh tones because of the amount of figures in the painting. They are soft and blended nicely, and he uses Chiaroscuro to make the two-dimensional figures appear more three-dimensional. (Transmogrify)

This piece conforms to the Baroque period because of Poussin’s use of exaggerated motion, his exaggerated lighting, and display of intense emotions. The numerous amounts of clothes in this painting give a sense of movement to it. The bright colored clothes that are caught in the wind make the viewer imagine them blowing through the wind. The placement of the angels in the sky indicate motion as they are flying through the air above the scene. Some have arrows drawn on their bows, looking as if they are about to let go. The horses carrying the man on the shell are thrusting their heads different ways, which also gives an exaggerated motion to the painting. Also the poses of the figures give movement to the painting, most of them in action of doing something. Poussin also uses exaggerated light in the painting to give focus to one figure over the others, that figure of course being Venus. She is the most lit up figure in the painting, right in the center glowing like a celestial figure. This use of light also helps give depth to the painting. For example, the girl to the right of Venus is shrouded in shadow, placing her figure behind Venus and giving the painting a three-dimensional aspect.

The figures in the background are also darker as they are farther in the background. Another aspect of this painting that makes it Baroque is the intense emotions that are on the faces of the figures. The faces of the woman are looks of concern as they accompany Venus. The men look determined and brave. Even the horses have an over exaggerated facial expression. Poussin also uses Sfumato in this painting, which is where the foreground is crisp and clear while the background gets more blurry and faded away. (Transmogrify) The figures in the foreground are significantly clearer than the chariot in the distant clouds. There is also a small hint of Tenebrism being used in this piece. There are dark values that surround the foreground which is painted in lighter values to give the focus of the painting, Venus, more of a pop. Poussin also uses a technique called figura serpentinata, where the figures in the painting are intertwined and twisted together much like a serpent. (Transmogrify)

Poussin mostly used ancient art and philosophy as his inspiration for paintings.(Artble) Unlike many Baroque artists he did not paint genre scenes, or scenes of everyday, common life. He often used epic stories through out history, like ancient mythology and Christianity.(Artble) In The Birth of Venus, the iconography behind the painting is debated. It is supposedly the celebration of the birth of Venus, and is a joyous and happy scene.(Philadelphia Museum of Art) Other people suggest that it is actually her triumph being celebrated with a parade and not her birth. Some people are under the impression that it is about Neptune’s marine procession. And then there are others who believe that it is not Venus and instead a sea nymph names Galatea. It can be said that Poussin did not restrict himself to a strict textual precedent but rather laid out multiple meanings and interpretations. ( Philadelphia Museum of Art) This is a typical painting of Poussin though, seeing as how most of his works are inspired by mythological and religious stories.

I chose to analyze and describe this painting because it is a beautiful work of art that really captures the viewer’s attention. The amount of figures in the scene is overwhelming and chaotic, but creates a good level of balance to the piece. The small angels above the cluster below them creates a sort of triangle among all the figures. The careful placement of the chaotic scene brings a viewer’s eyes around the piece. The cloth helps create a path of movement that brings you from one spot to the next. The color pallet that Poussin chose was rich and warm, but contrasted by the dark background of the sea and landscape. Also the mythology behind this painting is interesting subject matter to illustrate. It’s even more interesting that the subject isn’t clearly determined and can be up for debate.

Works Cited
“Girodet.” : ‘ The Birth of Venus ‘ Nicolas Poussin (French 1594-1636) Oil on Canvas, circa 1635-36. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. “Nicolas Poussin.” Artble: The Home of Passionate Art Lovers. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. “Philadelphia Museum of Art.” Philadelphia Museum of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. “TRANSMOGRIFY.” TRANSMOGRIFY. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.