Venus, the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility, was the counterpart of the Greek Aphrodite. According to the Theogony, a poem by the Greek poet Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the foam from the sea after Saturn (Greek Cronus) castrated his father Uranus (Ouranus) and his blood fell to the sea. This explanation became a popular theory and countless artworks depicting Venus rising from the sea in a clam has enriched the world.
Sandro Botticelli, born on the 1st day of March 1445 as Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, in the city of Florence, was an Italian painter of the Florentine school during the Early Renaissance. During his most creative period from 1478-1490, he produced his famous mythological works, including the ‘Birth of Venus’. It was a work of tempera on canvas, painted around 1484-1485, measuring roughly 6 feet by 9 feet. It has been hailed as the ‘first large-scale canvas created in Renaissance Florence.’
It is said that, the theme of the Birth of Venus was coined by Botticelli from the works of the ancient Greek poet, Homer. It is described that, after her birth Venus rode on a seashell and sea foam to the island of Cythera. However, it is also possible that, Botticelli was inspired by Angelo Poliziano's ‘Stanze’, in which the poet described a fictitious bas-relief. Poliziano described a beautiful girl with a ‘nonhuman countenance’, born from the sea foam, is pushed by the zephyrs to the shore, on a conch shell. On the beach, the Hours (Horae), dressed in white, wait for her and cloak her in a starry outfit, and put a crown made of gold and jewels on her head.
In the painting, Venus in the nude is conspicuously painted in the center of the canvas, born out of the foam as she rides to the shore. The shell, on which Venus stands on, may mean the female genitalia, the scene of her birth, which indicates her oceanic origin. Probably Botticelli turned to an Aphrodite statue for the modeling of Venus, such as the Aphrodite of Cnidos, in which the goddess attempts to cover herself in a gesture of modesty.
Botticelli was too much careful and particular about her hair and hairstyle, which reflected his interest in the way women wore their long hair in the late fifteenth century. In the painting, Botticelli gave her an unrealistic figure – her neck is too long, the shoulders are too steep and the left hand is placed on her body in a weird way. He gave Venus an idealized face too, which is remarkably free of blemishes and beautifully shaded, to distinguish a lighter side and a more shaded side. Probably, Botticelli did this intentionally to render his ideal of beauty.
– Venus trying to protect her eyes from light
From her right side, two winged deities, said to be Zephyr, the god of the west wind, and his wife, the nymph Chloris (in Poliziano's poem, she is identified as Aura, a goddess who was the personification of the breeze), blow gently to push her to the shore. On the other side of the canvas, a figure stands on the shore, which is considered as Pomona, or one of the Horae, the goddess of spring, who waits for Venus with a flowery cape in her hand to clothe her nudity. The cape billows in the wind from Zephyrus’ mouth.
After Botticelli many reputed artists worked and excelled in the same subject.
Italian painter and sculptor Pelagio Palagi (1775-1860) painted Venus in nude rising from the sea. The French painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889) also painted the goddess of love in nude, lying on the waves and about to wake up, while she tries to protect her eyes from the light of the day with her right hand. There are little angels above her, who are eagerly waiting for her to wake up. The painting was presented at the Salon de Paris in 1863 and was bought by Napoleon III for his personal collection. However, the painting was very much criticized. Even Emile Zola remarked that the goddess was ‘drown’ in milk and had an almond-paste complexion. In Eduard Steinbruck's Birth of Venus (1846), we find Venus with bare breasts, with the three Graces and little cupids around her.
French painter William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) in his famous painting on the same subject, also placed the goddess is the central figure of his composition. She is trying to wring her hair and this movement makes her look very sensual and appealing. She is surrounded by centaurs and nymphs and children, who keep looking at her admiringly, appreciating her unearthly beauty. Two of the centaurs blow their shells, as if to let the world know about the birth of the goddess. Cupid with his bow and arrow, along with many other little angels circles above her head, which signify the arrival of a prized gift in the world from the heaven above. A little boy is seen playing with a dolphin, which signifies that the goddess is a daughter of the sea.
Another French painter Henri Gervex (1852-1929) in his painting ‘The birth of Venus’ represented Venus as a beautiful bare goddess who is pushed to the shore by the waves and rests on the cloudy white foam of the waves.