View Full Version : Classical Symbolism - Venus

03-03-2006, 01:41 PM
I’m starting a new series of threads that are meant to explore some of the symbols, themes and ideas of classical art.

Sometimes, in this forum we use classicism in a fairly loose sense, but not this time. Here we are trying to learn more about the classical tradition.

The term, “classical” originally refers to the art of the ancient greeks and romans. So I’m starting by looking at art in the academic tradition that alluded to the greek and roman gods.

Our first painting is Charles Joseph Natoire’s “Le Reveil de Venus” or “ the “Awakening of Venus”. Since I want to focus more on mythology this time, I’m going to wait a bit to say anything about Natoire. But he was born in France in 1700 and died in 1777. He was a director of the French academy starting in 1751 until 1755.


Now, I can imagine some people are wondering a bit about these lovely people. It is a strange scene to modern eyes!

The lady reclining in her bed is Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility. (The Greek goddess was named Aphrodite.)

03-03-2006, 01:48 PM
Venus is attended by three young ladies. They are the "Three Graces", the goddess of grace, charm and beauty. These three ladies are the attendants to Venus. Their names are Aglaia (splendor), Euphrosyne (mirth) and Thalia (good cheer). They were the daughters of Zeus and Eurynome.

Now, I'll be honest - I haven't figured out "who is who".

But here are some slightly closer views.



03-03-2006, 02:52 PM
They are usually shown in art either dancing( maybe to Apollo’s music) or waiting on Venus. They are usually shown with the two graces are facing out and the middle is facing in. Since they are attendants to Venus, they often will have flowers or other symbols that are associated with Venus.
They represent the three aspects of generosity- the giving, recieving and returning of gifts, benefits, love and friendship.

This is an Ancient Roman version from about 200 B C. This sculpture is now in the Louvre museum.


This version is by Raphael “The Three Graces”. It was painted in 1504-05 in Oil on panel and it is now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly.


This version is by RUBENS, Pieter Pauwel, (b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen). His “The Three Graces” was painted in 1639 in Oil on wood and is now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.


03-03-2006, 03:07 PM
Now, back to our painting by Charles Natoire to look for more details.

In Academic Art, there are several “attributes” (symbols) that help identify the goddess Venus. She often has doves or swans (sometimes they draw her chariot), a scallop shell (she was born in the sea), often she is shown with flowers, particularly the red rose and/or myrtle (an evergreen).

In this painting, Natoire included the roses and myrtle.


03-03-2006, 03:45 PM
Another detail that is in Natoire's painting, a detail that is common in religious work, historical work, and mythological work alike is the "cloth of honor" draped behind Venus which symbolizes the prominence and importance of the person framed by the cloth.

It's a symbol found in all sorts of paintings.

Here's Titian's, "Pope Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese" painted in 1546 on Oil on canvas. It's in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.


And Titian's Gypsy Madonna. c.1512. Oil on wood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.


03-03-2006, 05:31 PM
The two "cupids" are actually named Eros and Anteros.


Eros (Greek)/ Cupid (Roman) is the god of love and sexual desire. In Ancient Greek mythology, sources disagree about how Eros was born and who was his mother. In most classical paintings he is shown as the son of Venus and so many paintings of Venus have a Cupid and Anteros in the composition. In Renaissance and Baroque art, he (and his brother) is usually shown as a chubby little baby with wings. But, in Greek art, he is sometime shown as a teenage boy. His attributes are a bow, arrows and quiver.

According to Greek legends, Eros was very lonely and languishing. Venus had Anteros so that Eros would have a playmate. This is suppose to symbolize that love must be answered if it is to prosper. Anteros is also the god who punishes those who scorn love or avenges unrequited love.

The ancient Romans used Cupid to decorate drinking vessels and other utensils. He usually was shown ready to fire an arrow into the heart of an unsuspecting victim. He had two kinds of arrows : golden arrows with dove feathers which caused someone to become aroused with love. He also had lead arrows with owl feathers that caused indifference. Of course, Cupid was mischievous and there was no telling who he chose to fall in love with who.

03-03-2006, 06:34 PM
Have I missed any symbols or parts of the story? Do you have favorite paintings that involve the same mythological characters? I'd love to hear what you think!

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-04-2006, 03:04 PM
Aphrodite[seafoam born]is I think the more beautiful

That's a particularly beautiful painting.You have good
taste Barb!
I'll be back with what I can dig up a little later.
Thanks for making this effort in particular.

*I think long ago the Graces were the personifications
of the harvests of the fields,and somehow in coming
forward in time,the personifications were altered.
Don't quote me,I haven't read up on this stuff for
a while.

03-04-2006, 04:06 PM
Thanks, Titanium, I really appreciate the compliment!

I ran across the Natoire during a visit to Jacksonville, FL. Learning more about Natoire really gotten me interested in the Neoclassical period and the Academy at that time.

That could possibly be true! In Encyclopedia Mythica, it said that Venus, the Roman goddess was “originally a vegetation goddess and patroness of gardens and vineyards.” It didn’t say that Aphrodite was a “vegetation goddess”. They weren’t exactly the same and but the Greeks and Romans exchanged many of their stories. Later on, artists and scholars weren’t always very careful about who was who. It’s not hard to believe that the Graces may have been goddess of harvests.

Barb Solomon:cat:

Anita Murphy
03-04-2006, 08:55 PM
Barb - fascinating reading. Beautiful painting! Interesting to see how much is hidden in these paintings.

03-04-2006, 10:36 PM
Thanks Anita! It is amazing how much is in these paintings.

For a lot of European art, there is something of a game being played with symbols. It is presumed that you know the story and can enjoy seeing how the characters are presented.

I'm still wondering why one of the graces is napping, but maybe I'll find out one of these days.

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-04-2006, 11:38 PM
This is great Barb! Thanks!

For those that would like to read more

The first mention of Aphrodite in Greek mythology was related in Hesiod’s cosmological poem, the Theogony. 7th Century BC.


Greek Aphrodite basically equals Venus for the Romans.

In the Latin poetry “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius, he calls Venus to work her charm.

Is this really amor vincit omnia?

‘Love conquers all’

Full text can be download here with reviews & comments.

Written 50 B.C.E

Translated by William Ellery Leonard



03-04-2006, 11:57 PM
Believing that any excuse is excuse enough for painting a lovely nude :evil: Venus... the Goddess of Love... is surely a theme worthy of producing a good number of my favorite paintings. The first Venus painting that popped into my mind following your post was this slightly (OK... more than slightly) perverted image by Bronzino:


The Mannerists were always capable of producing paintings that were somewhat unsettling... disturbing even. Bronzino did not fail us here. Father time pulls back the curtain revealing a rather illicit liaison between Venus and her son (!!!:eek: ), a rather gangly, adolescent cupid who grabs her boob while mom "slips him the tongue" (check out a detail on the web!). Most certainly "unsettling"... and unforgettable.

Another Mannerist Venus that I can never forget is Tintoretto's "Venus, Mars, and Vulcan":


I've often thought of this theatrical painting as something akin to a grand comic opera by Rossini. The painting comes complete with a jovial love triangle and unforgettable characters. Venus' husband, the gimp-legged Vulcan, staggers into the chamber and finding his wife naked in bed, he yanks back the sheets looking for her lover. Mars, looking rather less than heroic, is hiding under the bed and attempting to crawl to freedom. Unfortunately, the loyal family dog barks out upon discovering the god of war. On the ledge... cupid... the little god of love/lust... and the cause of this all, feigns sleep while looking out of the corner of his half-closed eyes. Brilliant!

Continuing in the comic Mannerist vein, I must put forth "The Complaint of Cupid" by Lucas Cranach:


The painting presents a rather simple allegory. In making the mistake of trying to get honey from a bee hive, cupid discovers that our desires for "sweets" can lead to our getting stung. Venus, here, seems delightfully decadent, dressed in her outrageous hat and gaudy necklace... and nothing else. The clothing makes her nakedness more unsettling than had she worn nothing at all. She also seems rather unconcerned with the plight of her son, and more focused upon posing for us... the viewers. One also senses that the spiky German landscape of all bark and rough twigs draws attention to...and contrasts with... her nudity... and the rather obscene fruit dangling above her.

Abandoning the comic, I'm drawn first to Botticelli's deservedly famous "Birth of Venus":


Blown ashore my the gentle Zephyrs, Venus steps from her shell into the waiting robe brought by an attending nymph. The painting is beautifully elegant and suggests something of the linear and patterned qualities of a tapestry.

No discussion of Venuses would be complete without looking at Titian's "Venus d'Urbino":


It's somewhat enlightening to read Mark Twain's outraged response to this painting:

You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world--the Tribune--and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses--Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed--no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl--but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to... I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her--just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world--just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one's own eyes--yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be.

There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought--I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort.

While Twain may seem to have overreacted a bit... he is not the only one to have sensed something unsettling in this Venus. The fact is... the nude may not and probably is not a Venus at all. Indeed, what strikes the viewer (and led to Manet's emulation of the painting in his equally notorious, "Olympia") is the bold manner in which the woman confronts the viewer. Rather than closing her eye or glancing away demurely to allow the (male) viewer to engage in a free and comfortable perusement of her naked charms... Titian's woman... probably a Venetian courtesan... brazenly looks the viewer in the eye and upsets the very notion of the voyeur.


03-05-2006, 01:06 AM
Continuing my own exploration of the theme of Venus, I come (as I must) to Rubens. Rubens may have produced more nudes than any other artist but Picasso (who seemingly produced more paintings period than any other artist). It should come as no surprise that I would find more than a single painting of Venus by him to be among my favorites. The first is clearly the great "Venus and Adonis" in the Met which I never fail to peruse upon any visit to New York:


Painted somewhat late in the artist's career, Venus is seemingly a portrait of the artist's beautiful second wife. The painting is largely, if not completely, in the artist's own hand. I remember having read the comments of a certain painter or writer (whom I have forgotten) who stated that he was "in love with the dimples in her knees". Yes... certainly. And yet these may be the least of her charms. Perhaps the beauty of this painting owes much to the aging artist's passion and love for his young wife... an ardor that could draw him to attempt to show the world how she was truly the goddess of love.

The second of my favorite Rubens' Venuses is to be found in another late painting, "The Judgement of Paris":


Once again, Ruben's second wife plays the role of Venus. In this case the artist reveals his mastery with narrative details. In an arcadian landscape beautifully rendered in a free and painterly manner, Venus, the goddess of love, Athena/Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and hera/Juno, the queen of heaven, strip for the young shepherd, Paris who choses Venus as the most beautiful of the goddesses and profers her the golden apple (the same one that Bronzino's Venus clutched). How outraged the other two must be... having humiliated themselves before the eye of a mre mortal peasant! Athena grasps her clothing and will soon be dressed once more in her armor. Hera pulls her royal robe around herself while her proud peacock "growls" and hisses at Paris. Above, the clouds roll in and the goddess Chaos can be seen holding the very apple aloft that will soon sew the seeds of discord among the Greeks and througout the heavens.

Velazquez famed "Rockeby Venus" never fails to lead me to thoughts of "what if?"


The sole surviving Venus by the great Spanish painter is so stunning that one can only wonder what was lost by Velazquez' servitude to the prudish and conservative Spanish court. What if he had the freedom afforded to Rubens or Titian? It has even been suggested that the very pose used by Velazquez was a means of avoiding the tricky issue of full frontal nudity. Nevertheless, the resulting painting is surely one of the most lovely nudes ever painted... or more cudely... as many have suggested... Velazquez has here succeeded in painting the greatest a@@ ever :eek: :thumbsup:

My final selection among all the Venuses is the only modern/contemporary piece... and may not be an actual Venus at all. The painting in question is "The Open Window" by F. Scott Hess:


I make this my final selection because I find it to be a perfect counterpart to my first selection, Bronzino's "Venus, Cupid, and Time". Like Bronzino's painting, Hess paints in a manner that is at once realistic and yet disturbingly unreal. His hyperrealistic painting was produced through the use of egg-tempera and layers of oil glazes... a rather old-masterish technique. Hess' contemporary Venus is a mid-30-something woman whose gaze confronts us in just as disconcerting a manner as Titian's Venus d'Urbino. But here, Hess has taken the voyear theme to a new level. While the woman looks up from her book and acknowledges our presence, two young (and somewhat retarded-looking) boys peer in the window from among the... corn field(?!:confused: ). This disconcerting and illicit lust is further acknowledged in the form of the text which our "Venus" is reading, Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex". (Yes, Hess' detail is so exacting that one can actually read the text itself!). The painting fascinatingly confronts a good many issues, chief among them being voyeurism, lust, and the sexulaity of an "older" woman (rather than the usual, idealised goddess of art, hollywood, and the fashion industry).

03-05-2006, 09:27 AM
Great Job, Nickel! It is always good to go to the original sources!

BTW, Ovid is often the source for Academic Art. I would think the MIT classics site would have a translation. I’m going to have to find the name of professor who did my translation. I found it on the web.

David - Thanks so much! Excellent "show"!

I always find myself wondering about the condition of Cupid’s back when I look at that Bronzino. It is a fascinating painting and even more beautiful in person.

The Tintoretto has many of the same elements as Titian. I love his compositions. Poor Tintoretto gets overlooked nowadays. Some of these are a little like scenes from a Grand Opera! (I wonder who is in that round painting.)

I love the stylization of Cranach’s nudes! Some aspects of the background remind me of early Italian painting (the craggy rocks for mountains).

Botticelli is going to be in my second “installment”! As is Titian! A person could do worse than to copy either Botticelli or Titian for a while!

Excellent choice of a Rubens! When I was putting this together and looking for paintings of Venus done by Rubens, I was struck by how much he had studied and copied Titian! There are elements of this Venus and Adonis that are similar to Titian’s version of the same subject, but ,he has adapted the composition and made it his own! I’ve been wanting to find images of the goddess Chaos - thank you! I’ll have to look closer.

Velazquez’s is truly one of the most beautiful and striking paintings!

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-05-2006, 04:45 PM
There are various stories about who Venus’ parents were. The Romans said that it was a daughter of Jupiter.

The Greeks had a variety of stories about the birth of Aphrodite. The Encyclopedia Mythica website says:

According to Hesiod, she was born when Uranus (the father of the gods) was castrated by his son Cronus. Cronus threw the severed genitals into the ocean which began to churn and foam about them. From the aphros ("sea foam") arose Aphrodite, and the sea carried her to either Cyprus or Cythera.

Homer calls her a daughter of Zeus and Dione.

She was married to Hephaestus (Vulcan) and she was mother of Cupid and Anteros plus one or two other gods depending on the tradition.

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-05-2006, 05:12 PM
There are some standard composition types that we see involving Venus in Classical Art.

Sandro Botticelli's (1445-1510) "The Birth of Venus" which was done in 1485 in Tempera on canvas. It's now in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.


The composition was based on “Venus pudica”
This particular statue is a roman copy that is known as the "Medici Venus".
It's after Cleomenes of Athens and was made in 1st century B.C. It is also now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


03-05-2006, 05:14 PM
The next sort of composition sometimes called the "recumbant Venus". It was first used by Giorgione. It's your basic reclining nude. Notice the similarities of the hands in Giorgione's and the Medici Venus and Botticelli.


GIORGIONE's (1477-1510) "Sleeping Venus", painted in 1510 in Oil on canvas.

Titian copied the general idea in his own work.

Titian's "The Venus of Urbino" painted in 1538 in oil on canvas. It's now in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.



03-05-2006, 05:16 PM
Titian painted quite a few female nudes. Many were of the goddess, Venus, but he did others as well. Their compositions are often quite similar.

Here's is another variation of the reclining nude that he often used. It's also the same "recumbant" style.

Titian's "Venus with Organist and Cupid" from 1548. It is painted in Oil on canvas and is now Museo del Prado in Madrid.


03-05-2006, 05:18 PM
This is another Titian, "Danae"painted in 1554 in oil on canvas.
It is now in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It follows similar lines as Titian's paintings of Venus.


It is even more similar to our Natoire.


03-05-2006, 05:20 PM
And finally, the last composition type involving Venus, that I'm going to show is "Venus at her toilet". "Toilet" in this case refers to general grooming practices.

"Venus at her Toilet" by Titian,
made in 1554-55, on Oil on canvas.
It's now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.


Many artist combine aspects of both the "recumbant Venus" with "Venus at her Toilet", by the way that the attendants take care of Venus. Often they have the attendant or cupid holding a mirror for Venus as she wakes up.

03-05-2006, 09:51 PM

You are right about Tintoretto's lagging reputation... nevertheless, I have long admired his work. You are quite right with regard to Titian's influence upon Rubens. Rubens seems to have merged not so much the Northern (Flemish) and Southern (Italian) manners (in spite of his admiration for Breughel) as he he seems to have wedded the Florentine/Roman linear manner (Michelangelo) with the painterly Venetian manner. In spite of the muscularity and drama (especially of his male figures) I sense that Titian was his greatest mentor. This is something that he revisits in later years during his period of access to the Spanish royal collections and their numerous Titians. I agree that there are similarities between Titian and Rubens' "Venus and Adonis". Both paintings plainly focus upon the moment in the narrative when Venus attempts to persuade her youthful lover not to leave for the hunt. Titian and his studio produced several versions of this painting:


In this version, Adonis is dressed in his stylish hunting hat. To my eyes, Titian's image is more masculine... and desperate. Venus twists her body around revealing a formidable back and wraps her muscular arms around her lover. The manner in which Adomis towers over his lover and looks down upon her with some degree of disdain (?) suggests the futility of her efforts. Soon he will pull free from her and move on with his dogs who seem impatient for the hunt. Rubens' version is quite different.


His Venus is far more voluptuous and feminine. She clearly has no chance of physically restraining her muscular lover as Titian's Venus attempted. Rather, she gently embraces his arm and caresses his back while drawing near to him using all her feminine charms and persuasions... and Rubens' Adonis seems far more tempted to succumb as he draws near, looks longingly at her and his arm seems desirous of embracing her once more. I somewhat wonder whether Rubens might have been attracted somewhat to this theme as something of an allegory of his own circumstances... the hero (albeit somewhat older) who is clearly tempted to give up his forays into the larger world... the world of art and diplomacy (?)... for the loving embraces of his young wife?

03-05-2006, 10:07 PM
Many artist combine aspects of both the "recumbant Venus" with "Venus at her Toilet", by the way that the attendants take care of Venus. Often they have the attendant or cupid holding a mirror for Venus as she wakes up.

Perhaps the best of these being Velazquez Venus.


The idea of the mirror clearly allows the artist to create a rear-view recumbant pose thus avoiding the tricky (for the prudish Spanish tastes) issue of full frontal nudity, while not ignoring the woman's face.

03-06-2006, 12:35 AM
David - It’s a shame that more people don’t know about Tintoretto, he has some really interesting compositions.

Excellent comparison of Rubens and Titian’s “Venus and Adonis”. I should point out that the subject of “Venus and Adonis” is another standard “composition type”.

Rubens’ “Venus” is more feminine and the whole composition is lighter. While Rubens borrowed from Titian, he put his own interpretation on the subject too!

The Rokeby Venus is such an outstanding version of the “recumbant” Venus that it deserves it’s own catagory!

Thanks so much for the wonderful contribution!

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-06-2006, 11:07 AM
Barb! How could we have forgotten this "Venus"? One of the oldest and one of the first pieces examined in many art history survey classes...


... the famous "Venus of Willendorf". Even more on the voluptuous side than Rubens' Venus, her rotund form echoes that of the oldest "Venus" in existence:

http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/06-Mar-2006/39499-space_art_venussmall.JPG:lol: :lol:

All joking aside, I've found out a few more interesting Venuses. First up is this well-known version of "Venus and Mars" by Botticelli:


Whereas Tintoretto focused upon the comic cuckolding of Venus' husband, Vulcan, in Botticelli's painting it is Mars himself who is the butt of the joke. Exhausted from all his amorous daliences with the Goddess of Love, Mars lies sleeping... dead to the world... while a group of mischievious satyr children play with (and perhaps run off with) his armor. Is Botticelli perhaps suggesting that love is greater than war? Or is he suggesting that love will make the greatest of men into fools sometimes?

Veronese produced a painting on a similar theme.


In this case Adonis lies helpless... like a big child... sleeping in Venus' lap... while she secrets away his equipment for the hunt and Cupid seeks to help out by attempting to whisk away his loyal hunting dogs. There is another Venus and Adonis attributed to Veronese...


... but personally I suspect that the painting is not by him at all. It actually looks far more like a work by a Flemish Mannerist both in terms of the composition and the drawing. In many ways it reminds me of any number of "Adam and Eves". You also must love those strategically placed leaves and that slightest whisper of a bit of drapery which makes the nudity all the more obvious (rather like Hugo van der Goes' "Adam and Eve").

I also discovered another Venus painting by Rubens that I had almost forgotten about. The painting is "The Feast of Venus":


... which along with his "Garden of Love" essentially establish the genre (in spite of similar earlier paintings such as Bellini/Titian's "Bacchanal) of the outdoor "fetes" or outdoor lover's gatherings which will become a major them of Rococo art... especially in the work of Watteau:


Rubens painting reveals a grouping of lusty nymphs, satyrs, and Cupids/putti all dancing with sensuous abandon before the statue of Venus. The statue is clearly a "Venus pudica" (the famed Greco-Roman Nude who attempts to cover herself) sometimes known as the "Cnidian Venus" or in the case of this specific copy... probably known to and copied by Rubens)... the "Medici Venus":


The satryrs and nymphs dance with a wild abandon...


...suggestive of the dancing peasants in a number of Rubens paintings on the theme:


...which are themselves clearly indebted to Breughel's similar scenes:


The nymphs are clearly willing participants in the amorous daliences unlike this deliciously comic Roman Venus who responds to her satyr's lusty advances by smacking him with her shoe :lol: :


03-06-2006, 04:33 PM
We are having a little chat in the studio about Pompeii.
You may be interested to know this about Venus

03-06-2006, 06:07 PM
Great choices, David! Both the Venus or Willendorf and the original Venus are true beauties! That is a really nice photo of Venus! I love the soft subtle colors! I did try to keep my choices to the classical tradition. Hehe

Those little baby satrys are a hoot!

Veronese is another neglected treasure worth studying!

I agree with you, the second “Veronese” seems to be in a different style. It’s still wonderful painting no matter who painted it!

Yeah, the levitating drapery and fig leaves can be quite funny sometimes!

Ruben’s “The Feast of Venus" is incredible! It’s kind of in the same spirit as Titian’s “Worship of Venus”. Ruben’s cupids playing ring around the rosie is so fun!

“Cnidian Venus” is another one of the ancient sculptures that inspired the later Baroque, Renaisance and everyone else after them. I’ve even seen a Bouguereau that follows the general style of this sculpture.

Eventually, I’m going to do one of these threads on the theme of Pan and his other Satyr friends!

The “Slipper Slapper” is hilarious! I keep wondering about the little cupid. He seems to be encouraging the satyr, but I’m not sure!

Nickel - Thanks for the link! I really appreciate it! Another Field Museum show that I’ve missed! Drats!!!

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-09-2006, 12:21 PM
Another detail that is in Natoire's painting,

a detail that is common in religious work, historical work, and mythological work alike is the "cloth of honor" draped behind Venus which symbolizes the prominence and importance of the person framed by the cloth.

It's a symbol found in all sorts of paintings.

Hi Barb, I want to know more about the "cloth of honor"



03-09-2006, 03:02 PM
The “cloth of honor” is the drapery that hangs in the background of portraits of illustrious individuals- kings, queens, popes, nobility......

In the Natoire, it’s the canopy over Venus’ bed.

In most portraits, it’s draperies that look like the draperies behind a throne. Some artist make a big deal of it and others just have a bit of curtain in the background. But the “curtains” are a symbol, it isn’t just that the artist decided to paint the person in front of the drapes and liked what the drapes did for the composition. They are also a sign of nobility.


In this painting by Frans Hals, Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen, painted in 1625-30 on Oil on canvas now hanging in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany, you can see a traditional example of a portrait with the “cloth of honor” hanging behind the person. Even if we have no idea who he is, when we see the fancy clothes, the fancy sword, the ruff at his neck and the cloth of honor, we know that this fellow was a “bigwig” of some sort.

The “cloth of honor” often form a canopy over the person in the portrait.

03-09-2006, 03:06 PM
Sometimes, it’s just a bit of drapery hanging along side. Here’s Titian’s “Empress Isabel of Portugal” painted in 1548 on Oil on canvas now hanging in Museo del Prado, Madrid. You can see some of the cloth of honor behind her.


In this painting, Titian’s Gypsy Madona, it is hanging flat behind her.


03-09-2006, 03:10 PM
Here’s a couple of official portraits by Hyacinthe Rigaud, a portraitist for the French court while Louis XIV. This painting was considered a model of how a portrait should be done in the following few generations.

Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701, Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris


Portrait of Phillippe de Courcillon, 1702, Oil on canvas, Château de Versailles, Versailles


Again, you can really see the cloth of honor and how it helps to create an impression of importance.

03-09-2006, 03:15 PM
This same curtain was often used in paintings of fictitious kings and nobility. You may find it behind popes. Also, you find the classical gods and goddesses.

With the classical gods and goddesses, it can look quite humorous. I’ve seen Venus out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. In a bed, covered in lush drapery. The drapery is the cloth of honor so that we know that she isn’t just anybody.

François Boucher, Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan, 1754, Wallace Collection


The Triumph of Venus, detail, 1740, National Museum, Stockholm


The little “angels” carrying the cloth of honor are called putti. You will see them carry wreaths, draperies and other celebratory symbols. You can see that the drapes form a similar canopy to the sort found in the King Louis portrait.

I should try to do one of these threads on official portraits one of these days. I should also write about the little putti sometime.

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-09-2006, 04:34 PM
Thank you Barb, this is good, I want more.:D

So when did this symbol start, the idea of drapery as a "cloth of honor." Is the idea more from the classical period or was it, do you think started later?

Your paintings are all nice examples of the "cloth of honor." I like the painting by François Boucher. I love the story of Venus caught in the trap by Vulcan.

03-09-2006, 05:06 PM
I'm not sure. Obviously, Titian used it. And his portraits were often copied and used as models for other portraits.

I looked around on the Web Gallery of Art list. I found something that could be a cloth of honor behind Fra Filippo Lippi's "Madonna del Ceppo" from 1453 which is now in the Civic Museum in Prato.


I saw a cloth of honor in a painting by Giovanni Bellini (who Titian apprenticed with).


So it wasn't invented by Titian. In the Fra Filippo Lippi, it is part of the Madonna's throne. Not all of the thrones that you find in this timeframe have this drape. Many painters have the Madonna throne framed by ornate architecture instead.

But I know that the symbol of the putti holding drapes goes back to the Romans. As a flat cloth sitting behind the Madonna, it seems to be fairly old but I don't know how old.

The cloth seems more common during Bellini and Titians time. It may be an old symbol that gained popularity by the Renaissance. I don't know if it is Roman or Medieval.

Barb Solomon:cat:

Anita Murphy
03-09-2006, 06:00 PM
Very interesting - going to see if I can find anything else on this.

Anita Murphy
03-09-2006, 06:03 PM
Apparently its from classical antiquity - whenever that was! :p

03-09-2006, 06:50 PM
Well I found this, this is pretty old. What do you think?

"Dionysos Visiting a Poet"
A marble relief


03-09-2006, 07:10 PM
This is the Low Ham Mosaic, used as a way to show Roman identity of the homeowner. England, 4 AD

Venus is in center panel, surrounded by two cupids, one holds a torch erect the other hold the torch to the floor a symbol of imminent death.


There is some kind of drape behind her, but she is holding it? What do you think?

03-09-2006, 07:21 PM
I'm trying to decide if Venus in the Low Ham Mosaic is holding a bath towel or not! :evil:

It definitely has the putti attendants (Cupid and Anteros?). Thanks for pointing out the symbolism of the torches. I wasn't aware of that one.:thumbsup:

That's great to see "Dionysos Visiting a Poet". It's definitely in the cloth of honor style. I love seeing the origins of these symbols.

Anita - Thanks for pointing out the origins. I know that many of these symbols are Roman. Often, people kept on using them through the Fall of Rome, the Middle Ages until today. But often we have no idea why they are being used.

I really appreciate your filling in that detail.

Barb Solomon:cat:

03-09-2006, 07:37 PM
LOL, that is right Barb, I thought it was a bath towel too, but I kind of reconsidered after I found this mosaic of Europa


Apparently its from classical antiquity - whenever that was!

And yes Anita, thank you very much, I really would not have looked so far back for the source, I was sure it had to be religious and not classical but thanks to you and Barb I am a happy girl.

Anita Murphy
03-09-2006, 07:57 PM
Nickel - I've seen the Low Ham Mosaic. I used to live near there.

03-09-2006, 08:14 PM
Nickel - I've seen the Low Ham Mosaic. I used to live near there.

LOL, Anita, is it a bath towel? Sorry, I just had to ask :) I know it tells a story but not sure of all of it.

03-09-2006, 08:15 PM
I have been viewing cave paintings looking for the cloth. You know I am going to crack a rib if I find one. :p

03-09-2006, 09:52 PM
Now, I don't think that it's going to be that old. Not unless you find something one of the islands off Italy or Greece.:D

It's probably Roman, maybe Greek!

Then again, some of these symbols came from Crete and Egypt.

Barb Solomon

03-10-2006, 11:16 AM

This is a wonderful series! Thank you for taking the time to do it!


03-10-2006, 11:38 AM
Thanks, Michael! I've really enjoyed doing it, too!

Barb Solomon:cat:

04-01-2006, 11:15 PM
The first painting that I showed, Charles Natoire’s “The Awakening of Venus” or “Le Reveille de Venus” was painted in 1741. It’s 38” x 49” in size. Charles Natoire was known for his decorative painting and this painting was probably part of an elaborately decorated interior.

Natoire lived from 1700-1777. He received his initial artistic training from his father, the sculptor, Florent Natoire. In 1717, Charles Natoire moved to Paris so that he could apprentice to Louis Galloche. While Galloche’s apprentice, he developed a taste for landscape art. Later, he became a student of Francois Lemoyne. Natoire’s composition and tendency to work with the female nude is something developed with Lemoyne.
From 1723 to 1729, he went to Rome after winning the Prix de Rome in 1721. His winning entry to the Prix de Rome was “ Manoah Offering a Sacrifice to the Lord”. He was awarded the first prize of the Accademia di S. Luca in 1725.

He was a member of the Royal Academy in 1734. To enter the academy he submitted the painting “Venus Begging Arms from Vulcan”. It was heavily influenced by Boucher’s painting of the same subject. They were contemporaries.


04-01-2006, 11:16 PM
Charles Natoire was important and influential to the French Rococo style of painting because of his well known decorative painting. He painted “cabinet paintings” (paintings for people’s studies or drawing rooms), decorative panels and tapestry cartoons (the initial drawing plans for tapestries used by the weavers).

From 1737 to 1739. Boucher, Carle Van Loo, Pierre-Charles Tremolieres, and Charles Natoire collaborated with Germain Boffrand on the restoration of the Hotel de Soubise ( now the Archives Nationales) in Paris. Because of the marriage of Hercules-Meriadec with Marie-Sophie de Courcillon, Broffrand chose to decorate in the lighter Rococo style and emphasize ornamentation that took over as its. In the oval shaped, Salon de la Princess, Natoire created eight paintings of the story of Psyche designed to fit into the room architecture. The paintings were designed to fit the elaborately shaped spandrels between the arched and mirrored recesses. The compositions are skillfully adapted to integrate the pictures into the shape of the room.

Here’s a link that shows his work in the Hotel de Soubise! Make sure to get a close up view of these very lavish rooms and paintings!


04-01-2006, 11:17 PM
Charles Natoire also work on Boffrand’s chapel for the “Hospital des Enfants Trouves” (now destroyed) from 1741 to 1750. There were 14 painted panels including “The Adoration of the Magi and the Shepherds”. He is also historically significant for this “History of Clovis” at the Troyes Musee which is a decorative scheme based on a nation patriotic figure. Other projects include work at Marly, the ceiling of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (1756), and tapestry designs (the Don !uizote series)for the gobelins and Beauvais manufacturers.

The Awakening of Venus was painted about the time that the “Hospital des Enfants Trouves” was started.

He was forced to resign as director of the French Academy in 1774 through administrative incompetence. He retired to Castle Gandolfo where he turned to landscape - a genre in which his work - a genre in which his work anticipates that of Hubert Robert and Fragonard. With the aim of encouraging landscape painting,, Natoire used to take his pupils to various sites in Rome and the surrounding areas so that they could draw from nature. He made a number of landscape drawings tinted with washes and then with watercolor or gouache which reveal his efforts to achieve picturesque effects. His plein-aire classes led to our contemporary landscape styles. Fragonard was one of those who attended his plein aire classes.

Barb Solomon:cat: