Famous Friday // The Birth of Venus

 

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Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, tempera on canvas, 1482-85. Location: Ufizzi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

According to Homer, the goddess Venus was born from the foam of the sea. Shortly after her birth, according to legend, she rode on to the island of Cythera on a giant seashell. This is what Botticelli seems to have depicted in one of the most famous works of art that came from the Italian Renaissance, and was commissioned by a member of the Medici family.

Visually, we see Venus at the center of the painting, being guided by nymphs blowing wind to guide her. She is quickly approaching land where a figure is waiting for her. This figure is known as Pomona, who is the goddess of Spring. Pomona is holding a piece of cloth in order to cover Venus once she arrives on land.

One of the most important things to note about this painting is the obvious nudity of Venus. It was quite rare to depict a nude woman in a painting during the Middle Ages due to prominent Christian ideology. In order to appear more modest, Venus attempts to cover herself using her hair and her hands. This pose is referenced from the Venus de Medici, which Botticelli had the opportunity to study. However, Botticelli attempts to employ humanism techniques into The Birth of Venus. Humanism was a technique that typically referenced Greek and Roman myths. The resurrection of these myths led to the gradual acceptance of nude portraiture that was popular during antiquity.

It’s also important to note that this work was painted on canvas using tempura, which was quite rare for the time. Tempura is a type of paint made with egg whites, which allow for incredible transparency, and visually resembles an Italian fresco.

Famous Friday // Mona Lisa

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Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, known as the Mona Lisa, 30 x 21 in, 1503-19, oil on panel. Location: Musée du Louvre.

Now, what list of famous works of art would be complete without the Mona Lisa? None! That’s why I’m including one of da Vinci’s most famous works in our Famous Friday roundup. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa several times at the Musée du Louvre, but none of the times were more underwhelming than the first. Why? Because it’s so small! I was expecting the painting to be grandiose in scale, but it wasn’t! Nevertheless, the Mona Lisa is one of the most recognized images in the world and is one of the major icons of the Renaissance.

It’s hard for us (especially us Millenials) to imagine a world without portraits due to the sheer amount of cameras that we have at our disposal in 2018. But, this wasn’t the case for most of human history. In fact, at one point only the wealthy could afford to have portraits commissioned of them. People who desired to have their portrait painted usually had to sit for several days so that the painter could capture their likenesses in the painting. This is likely what happened in the Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa was probably the wife of a Florentine merchant, who never had her painting delivered. Instead, da Vinci kept it with him when he journeyed to France to work for the king.

One of the reasons that the Mona Lisa is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance was because of Leonardo da Vinci’s use of sfumato. Sfumato is the technique in which oil paints are blended in such a way that they seemingly melt together without noticeable transitions. His use of sfumato is particularly noticeable around the mouth area as her smile seems to flicker before your eyes.

The Mona Lisa was always highly regarded in the artistic community, but it wasn’t until it was stolen that it rose to acclaim in the non-art community. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the walls of the Louvre by an Italian handyman who assumed that the painting wouldn’t be missed. However, the museum noticed the missing painting, and soon images of the Mona Lisa were broadcast across the international news sphere. Two years later, the thief was caught and the painting was returned to the Louvre. This art heist helped make the Mona Lisa one of the most famous images on the planet, but also helps attract millions of visitors to the Musée du Louvre each year.

Famous Friday // The Death of Sardanapalus

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Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, oil on canvas, 1827, 12′ 10″ x 16′ 3″. Location: Musée du Louvre.

Oh, how I love gigantic paintings! At more than 12 by 16 feet, The Death of Sardanapalus does not disappoint. The work itself is based on the historical tale of the last Assyrian king, Sardanapalus. According to legend, upon hearing the news of invaders in his capital city, the King decided that he would destroy his Earthly possessions instead of facing a humiliating defeat. Not only were his possessions burned, but so were his slaves and concubines as well. Sardanapalus knew that he would place himself upon the funerary pyre upon its completion.

Delacroix depicted this tale in its final moments. He captured as much destruction and chaos as possible, which is characteristic of the Romanticism style that this work was painted in. Beyond the pandemonium pictured, we see the main action of the painting taking place atop a large red bed. Figures are depicted in various disarray. One man wrangles one of the horses, while another lies at the foot of who we assume to be Sardanapalus. Trinkets surround the figures, indicating the wealth of Sardanapalus.

When Delacroix first exhibited The Death of Sardanapalus in 1828, the reviews were not stellar. This was primarily due to the fact that it wasn’t a traditional neoclassical painting with a clear hero. In fact, this work was quite literally the opposite with Sardanapalus playing the role of the anti-hero.