Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This is the most beguiling back in the history of western art — a masterpiece of sensuality emphasising the curve between a very slim waist and full hips. The flesh tones are perfectly offset against the black silk upon which she is reclining. All is realised with a very free style.
Venus gazes pensively at her reflection in a mirror supported by a very pudgy Cupid who one senses is only there to make up the numbers, as a token classical reference. Otherwise it would just be the two of us — Venus and her (male) admirer. The mirror is held at such an angle by the portly Cupid that the viewer, or should we say voyeur, can see the face of Venus staring back. Is there a hint of insouciance in her expression? Alas, it seems that the mirror may be made of inferior materials for the reflection is poorly defined, but as the viewer can see her face then she must be able to see the viewer so perhaps she is assessing the effect her body is having on her admirer.
Very probably completed during Velázquez’s second stay in Rome — where he painted some of his most celebrated works — this is the first extant example of that extremely rare subject in Spanish art, the female nude. Influenced by the Venetian nudes of Titian and Giorgione, the painting is recorded in 1651 in the collection of the Marqués del Carpio y Heliche who was the son of the Spanish First Minister and later became the Viceroy of Naples. The status of the first owner is the key to the painting’s existence for it is only someone of high rank who would have felt confident enough to face down the fierce disapproval of the Inquisition. Although the royal collection was replete with mythological nudes by Titian and others, it seems that the baleful influence of the Inquisition was responsible for the absence of any similar output by Spanish artists until Velázquez, and indeed continued to ensure that there were no further examples until Goya’s Naked Maja well over a century later.
This most captivating of nudes is surely far more erotic than any number of full frontal rivals. Goya’s Naked Maja, Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino will all have their champions but give me this muse every time.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1648 Adriaen van Ostade: Winter View, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1648 Claude Lorrain: Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, London, National Gallery
1651 Nicolas Poussin: The Finding of Moses, London, National Gallery
1651 Salomon van Ruysdael: Ferry Crossing the Environs of Arnhem; St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum