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The Birth of Venus

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The Birth of Venus Roaming through the many halls and floors of the metropolitan museum of art is an interesting and eye opening experience, especially for someone unexposed to the beauty of art. Although there were many beautiful paintings and sculptures waiting to be uncovered by wandering eyes, one painting in particular captured my attention like no other the instant I happened upon it. As if it were entrancing me and calling me towards it, the vibrant colors and elegant aura of Alexandre Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” resonated with me, and that was the moment I knew which piece of art had chosen me. Leaving the tour group behind and unable to look away, I became enamored with this piece and urged myself to learn anything I could about the artist and his creation.
According to a biography written by Jim Lane, Alexandre Cabanel was an extraordinary French painter born in the year 1823, who is known for his academic style of painting. At that time, academic art was defined as art and artists influenced under the Neoclassicism and Romanticism periods, drawing inspiration from the ancient artistic styles of Greece and Rome. The painting that strongly exemplified Cabanels Academic style most famously would be his “Birth of Venus” painting, conceived in 1863. The painting itself depicts a nude woman, a theme frequently visited in other paintings of the Romanticism movement, sprawled across a calm ocean underneath many angels, depicted as children. At the time of its creation, this painting was renowned as high artistic achievement, and still is today due to its display in quality art museums. Cabanel began his artistic endeavors as early as the age of eleven and at the age of merely seventeen, Cabanel entered a prestigious French art school titled “École des Beaux-Arts” in Paris. Cabanels time at art school would prove vital to his success, as he studied under the tutelage of François-Édouard Picot, a hugely successful artist of his time. Not only would the art Cabanel created at age twenty one be shown at many exhibits, including the famous Paris Salon, he would also prove his reign over other artists by claiming the Prix de Rome scholarship in 1845. Interestingly enough, the same year that Cabanel would create his famous “Birth of Venus” painting would also be the year the successful artist would be elected as member of the Institute in 1863 and appointed professor at his alma-mater (Dictionary of Art (1996) vol. 5, pp. 341-344). “Birth of Venus” is one of his more well-known pieces, winning him awards and medals for years to come, even being purchased by French emperor Napoleon III. (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Researching information on Cabanel helped me to understand more about the revolutionary art that he had created, but it still left me with a thirst to gain more knowledge on the “Birth of Venus” that had entrance me on first glance. The general mood of this particular piece left me feeling relaxed in its presence and contained a beauty not as evident in other paintings I observed that day. This beauty may have stemmed from the sensual image of the nude woman named Venus, which may in fact be a depiction of the Roman Goddess “Venus” who is associated with the ideas of sex, love, fertility and prosperity among their mythology. In a direct quote looking more in depth at the nature of Venus, it is said "She [Venus] was the goddess of chastity in women, despite the fact she had many affairs with both gods and mortals" which can be noted by the presence of the angelic children, but the absence of man, mortal or otherwise, in this depiction. The author also goes on to say "Venus was worshiped as the mother of Aeneas, the founder of the roman people; as Venus Felix, the bringer of good fortune; as Venus Victrux, the bringer of victory and as Venus Verticordia, the protector of feminine chastity" (N.S Gill, Venus - The Goddess of Love and Beauty). In the instance of this painting, all of these attributes were present, but something else remained to be defined in relation to the many faces of the feminine goddess. Observing her hair flowing just as freely and calming as the ocean waves beneath her, my eyes placed themselves on her face. At first glance one may believe that her eyes are closed tight, but upon closer observation and deeper thought, one can see her eyes slightly aflutter. This spoke volumes to me, as it showed a glimpse into her soul in that precise moment and gave a different perspective on the confident and sexy woman sprawled before me. With one arm shielding her face and the other carelessly thrown about behind her, before me was both a shy and feminine woman that did not lay in comfort, while at the same time she was expressing freedom and carefree emotions with great complexity with the other arm. Venus’ split appearance could be explained in terms of what was going on in the particular era of her conception. For instance, perhaps it was an attempt to express the shame lashed towards provocative art such as this by Impressionists, artists in that time period that violated the standards of academic paintings. Impressionists such as Claude Monet were a direct opposition to the works such as “birth of Venus”, and as such Cabanel used Venus to express his pride in his work, at the same time using Venus as a conduit to convey the ill feelings others held towards work such as this. While Venus herself is the centerpiece in this artwork, she is not the only figure present. As mentioned before, Angelic children surround her in the sky above, each with their own unique personality. Two of the angels are blowing into conch shells each detailed and colored in an elegant manner, adding to the peaceful beauty surrounding this piece. The significance of the conch shells is unknown, certainly adding a touch of mystery to the piece. Directly overhead Venus would be three other Angels in childish play around their “mother”, happiness and innocence slapped across the faces of each of them. Placing children around the image of a nude woman could best be described as shocking to see, but still left me with a strange feeling of familiarity in that it reminded me of the pure and maternal connection I once had with my mother as a child. This aspect of the painting definitely struck a chord with me and left me with some sort of emotional attachment I could not quite pinpoint at the exact moment I viewed it.
Upon exiting the museum, I have found a piece of artwork that resonated with my soul, which is something I have never expected to find. Learning more about the famed and breakthrough academic painter Alexandre Cabanel has been an exciting journey for me, through both his achievements that led up to "Birth of Venus" and the circumstances surrounding the exotic academic art style of painting. Viewing this gorgeous painting definitely shifted how I view art, even going so far as to say that their is a difference between the person who analyzed this piece and the person who had never experienced it prior. Researching all the necessary information on both the artist and painter, I came to understand why I felt attached to the art itself, and perhaps even strengthening a bond between myself and other artists I never knew was possible.
Works Cited
1) Lane, Jim. "The Refined Eroticism of Alexandre Cabanel." - The Refined Eroticism of Alexandre Cabanel [Biography]. N.p., 25 Nov. 1998. Web. 18 Sept. 2012. .
2) Turner, Jane. The Dictionary of Art. New York: Grove, 1996. Print.
3) "Alexandre Cabanel: The Birth of Venus (94.24.1)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (December 2008)

4) Gill, N.S. "Mythology - Gods and Goddesses." Venus - Goddess of Love and Beauty. New ed. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2-3. Major Gods and Goddesses of the World. 21 Apr. 2002. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. .…...

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