Andy Warhol’s Birth of Venus (After Botticelli) is a radical and breathtaking vision of divine beauty. Executed in 1984 as part of a series of reimagined Quattrocento masterpieces, Warhol’s red Birth of Venus is one of just six large-scale images of Botticelli’s iconic goddess. Of these, four are on canvas and two on linen, each in a different colorway. This original and unique "red" production on canvas, which has been in the same private collection since before Warhol’s death over thirty years ago, is undoubtedly the most romantic. Warhol depicts Venus against a background of salmon pink. For her skin tones, a soft shade of umber is overlaid on pink, while her hair is a deep red, ablaze with accents of electric blue and white. Flourishes of yellow articulate her hair and features. Warhol has cropped and magnified Botticelli’s composition to form a spellbinding portrait, placing Venus in his pantheon of icons, alongside the exalted image of Marilyn Monroe. If Marilyn has been made goddess, here Venus comes to Hollywood.
Sandro Botticelli (circa 1445-1510) was one of the great figures of the Italian Renaissance. Praised by Giorgio Vasari for the grace of his compositions, he was renowned for the linear elegance and subtle tones of his figure-painting. Botticelli was also an innovator. He introduced classical myth into a field dominated by religious painting. His Birth of Venus (circa 1484-1486) and its sister painting Primavera (circa 1482), both once owned by the Medici family and now hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, are recognized as masterpieces. The great art historian Bernard Berenson singled out Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as a sublime example of the artist’s “unparalleled power of perfectly combining values of touch with values of movement… almost as lifeheightening [sic] as music.” He saw the goddess’s “mane-like tresses of hair fluttering to the wind not in disorderly rout but in masses yielding only after resistance” as “directly life-communicating” (B. Berenson, Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, London & New York, 1896).
Andy Warhol reinterprets and dramatizes this extraordinary vision. Released from her original context, Venus is reborn in Technicolor, hit with a strobe light, and made into a universalized "Marilyn" for a new age. The conventions of art history are subverted, transmuted, repackaged and democratized. Warhol’s Birth of Venus is one of the outstanding achievements of his later career, looking forward to his final masterworks, the iterated versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.
In the 1960s, Warhol had shocked the art world with the advertising-led flatness of his Coke Bottles and Campbell’s Soup Cans. In the 1970s, his celebrity led to the repetition in different media of many themes that had made him famous. As the renowned art critic Robert Pincus-Witten observed in the April 1980 issue of Arts Magazine, “In the 60s, Warhol was a burning critical issue. In the 70s, Warholism superseded Warhol. In the 80s, the return of Andy Warhol.” Warhol was rejuvenated, a consummate master of the revolutionary silkscreen process he had initiated nearly two decades earlier. He now combined the medium’s coolly serial mode with an expressive chromatic complexity, a step change from Mona Lisa and other earlier series. Warhol reassessed his art in the Retrospective series of 1978-1879. In his Reversals, he flipped his original colors into negative. His Marilyn (Reversal) images glow with a dark radiance as if ignited from within by their own fame. Warhol’s Pop icons and silkscreen art had advanced from the graphic linearity they once shared with Roy Lichtenstein. Through the genius of Warhol’s vision, they had taken on their own life—or afterlife—in popular culture. They now transcended the American frames of reference that they once embodied, and claimed an important place as milestones in the broader canon of Western art.
The Details of Renaissance Paintings series of 1984 positions Warhol’s silkscreens alongside the great paintings of the world. The Birth of Venus is at the summit of this series. Although derived from Botticelli, it is the culmination of a profound inquiry into the canonizing power of popular culture. At one level, Warhol’s Venus is “an image of an image, with no reason but a surface reason” (Sherman and Dalton, Andy Warhol, 2009). But if that is all, how has Warhol succeeded in translating Botticelli’s shimmering goddess into one of the world’s most memorable icons? Taking full command of one of the most universally acclaimed paintings in the history of art, Warhol describes the face of love with searing clarity, dramatically ordered color and delicate surface detail to create a timeless image of beauty. Warhol’s Venus may have her origin in a Western ideal, but her reincarnation resonates across the globe. In this red version, the balance of color and detail is revolutionary. Emerging from a background of pure pink and framed by the vibrancy of her rose-red hair lit with ethereal flames, Venus’s lovely face speaks to everyone. The delicate yellow strokes–first drawn by hand before being transferred to a screen–are lovingly applied. Such lyrical details, in concert with the work’s striking assortment of hues, exemplify Warhol’s commitment to line, form, color and process, while responding to the age of television and mass communication.
Warhol, like Botticelli, was clearly enchanted by his subject. He works with fierce yet tender concentration. It does not seem fanciful to see traces of personal devotion in his homage. Warhol’s Catholic upbringing accorded deep significance to the veneration of images. Like a beautiful Madonna, this goddess is touched with feminine mystery, but is never depersonalized. Andy Warhol’s Venus is the exultation of an icon imbued with humanity by an artist who was never the machine he might pretend to be. Warhol was not merely subverting and challenging the past. By lavishing attention upon every aspect of his painting, he formed a new paradigm of beauty for the postmodern era. The red Birth of Venus is among the most glorious and romantic of his creations.
In the post-Pop era, Warhol transcended the boundaries between fine art and popular culture. Selection, appropriation and reproduction were starting points. Editing, magnification and coloration were transformative. His genius of imagination was decisive. Warhol may have said that all he saw was surface. But his achievement was far more complex and infinitely greater. If Botticelli’s Venus was the embodiment of perfect beauty, Warhol could not help but add magic. Andy Warhol’s recasting of the art of the past shows life-heightening iconography in a new light. Two masters are united across five centuries of history. Great art is always learning from its past to fashion itself anew. In Warhol’s wondrous vision, Botticelli’s 15th century Venus is reborn as a brilliant icon, the divine personification of love, floating in time and space.