One of the most iconic images of the 19th Century is Alexander Cabanel's The Birth of Venus, a subject that has inspired numerous masters throughout the centuries from Botticelli to Ingres and to Bouguereau.
In pagan Rome, Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the goddess of beauty and love, was named after her greatest attribute venustas (loveliness) whereas in the Greek language she is named after the incident of her birth "foam born" (aphros). There are, in fact, two versions of the story of her birth: In Hesiod's far more popular version, Aphrodite sprang from the foam of the sea as a fully developed woman. She was then carried across the sea on a clam shell, to Cythera and then to Cyprus by Zephyrus, the God of the west wind. There Aphrodite was welcomed by Horae, daughter of Themis, who dressed her up and adorned her with precious jewels before taking her to the Immortals at Olympus. Homer's version of the account the older of the two accounts, never became widespread.
The most popular and complete rendering of this story is probably Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus at the Uffizzi (circa 1485). In the 17th and 18th Centuries, artists such as Poussin and Boucher (fig. 1), preferred depicting the triumph of Venus as she is carried across the sea to Cyprus, as opposed to the moment of her birth. Compositionally this allowed them to introduce more elaborate elements, such as a triumphal chariot drawn by dolphins, swans or doves. In these compositions, Venus and putti as well as the sea nymphs, would naturally need to be depicted in motion so as to reflect their energy. In the 19th Century, most painters preferred to leave Zephyrus and Horae out of their compositions, concentrating on the very instant of Venus' birth. Literary sources describing this moment have inspired artists to depict her standing rather than reclining. Artists such as William Bouguereau in his The Birth of Venus of 1879, preferred a standing Venus on a clam shell amidst centaurs, sea nymphs and putti. Félix-Henry Giacomotti in his L'Enlèvement d'Amymoné of 1865 also depicted a standing Venus but his version stood on the backs of two mermen. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in his Vénus Anadyomène of 1848 (fig. 4) chose the vertical positioning as well, but placed Venus on a cloud of foam amidst a tower of putti, who are presenting her with a mirror.
As early as 1860, Ingres' Venus was considered a recent classic of 'the nude' inspiring numerous artists including Cabanel. This painting was celebrated mostly for its ability and success in making "a certain kind of sexual content legible in an unembarrassed way" (T.J. Clark, Olympia's Choice, The Painting of Modern Life, Princeton, 1984, p. 126). In the context of the Second Empire, a sense of elevated noble morality was praised by the administration, which was in contrast with the realities and aesthetics of a fast paced and rising bourgeoisie. In this highly charged environment with two opposing tastes, it did not take much time before artists such as Manet and Degas began handling subjects involving the realities of courtesans and common folk, simultaneously abandoning the academic and traditional school of painting. If Manet represented one end of the spectrum, Cabanel personified the other. As a result, he greatly appealed to the taste of the Empire, soon becoming the most celebrated academic painter and enjoying the patronage of Napoleon III. At the time of his death, the Art Amateur praised him as "the foremost of [France's] academical painter, for though Bouguereau and Lefebvre may approach his skill as a draughtsman, they can not compete with his best work in other respects" (R. Riordan, Alexandre Cabanel, Art Amateur, 1889, p. 78).
Cabanel's colossal work of 1851, The Death of Moses, serves as an excellent example for a demonstration of the sources of inspiration in his art. In this painting, the figure of God is directly modeled after Raphael's Vision of Ezechiel and his gesture after Michelangelo's Creation of Adam painted for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Similar references to old master paintings, as well as the recent classics, are continuously present in Cabanel's art. As with most of his major works, The Birth of Venus should be viewed in light of such artistic influences. In the present composition some of the more obvious ones are the pose of Venus after Titian's The Andrians, her form and coloring after Ingres Venus Anadyomène (fig. 1) and the putti formation after Boucher's The Triumph of Venus (fig. 1). The Empire's fondness of Cabanel's paintings lies in this enviable ability to present it with contemporary art that was rooted in a time period long before the revolution and thus evoked memories of the height of aristocracy.
In 1863, when Cabanel's The Birth of Venus (fig. 3) and Manet's Olympia (fig. 4) were exhibited at the Paris Salon, the former's work was praised and purchased by Napoleon III himself, the latter shunned and rehung in a back room above a doorway. Olympia's demise lay in the consciousness of class it provoked in the viewer. There are numerous contemporary accounts and reviews by critics of its time responding to the pale and decaying color of her skin as well as her prematurely aged face and her wrinkled feet. In Clark's words the painting "played with the identities the culture wished to keep still, pre-eminently those of the nude and the prostitute" (Clark, op. cit., p. 100). It was always recognized to a degree, that the subject of the nude evoked desire yet it was the painter's challenge that her sexuality, in pursuit of the Empire's high morality, should not be noticeable. Camille Lemonnier's description of the nude in 1870 is descriptive of the restrictions involved in this genre, and certainly are applicable to the kind of reception and judgement Cabanel and Manet received in 1863 at the Salon: "The nude has modesty only if it is not a transitory state. It hides nothing because there is nothing to hide. The moment it hides something it becomes prurient, for in reality it shows it all the better. In order to stay a virgin the nude in art must be impersonal and must not particularize; art has no need of a beauty spot upon the neck or a mole on the hindquarters" (loc. cit., p. 129). Cabanel's iconic Venus, with her pale pink skin, perfect proportions, classical face and long hazel hair won him the gold medal at the Salon of 1863 as well as the Legion d'honneur. The Birth of Venus is the pictorial representation of Napoleonic morality and the culmination the Empire's ideals.
It comes as little surprise that Cabanel should have received orders for versions of The Birth of Venus, particularly from American clientele. What appealed to industrialists along the East Coast of America was certainly not the realities of the Second Empire but its idealist approach to morality and its regal taste. The puritan approach of the Second Empire with regards to the handling of the genre of the nude, as well as the ideals regarding classical beauty and proportions, was attractive to the American audience. There are two other versions of the 1863 The Birth of Venus; one of which is the present work, which will be referred to as the second version, and the third version, currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 5).
The history of the third version has always been well documented. It was painted in 1875 and the first owner of the work was John Wolfe, a tobacco heir from New York. Wolfe purchased most of the works in his collection through the assistance of art advisors George Lucas and Samuel Avery, who are recorded to have purchased paintings directly from Cabanel, as opposed to operating through a dealer. The painting was then left to Wolfe's cousin Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who gifted the work together with her entire collection, to the museum in 1893.
The provenance of the second version (the present work) is believed to have begun with Henry C. Gibson (fig. 6). Gibson, a major art collector as well as a banker, was at the time of his death, the richest man in Philadelphia. It has recently been discovered that Gibson purchased the painting on the 24th of January 1871 at the sale of the collection of H.W. Derby. Indeed, there were three consecutive advertisements published in the New York Times of 22nd, 23rd and the 24th of January 1871 announcing the sale of the "World Renowned Birth of Venus by Cabanel". This new discovery establishes Derby's latest possible date of ownership of the work to 1870, thus confirming the second version as an earlier work than the version at the Metropolitan Museum. In literature published around the sale of his paintings, Derby is mentioned as an art collector who was tightly involved in the process of purchasing works included in his collection. For Derby, the process of collecting was personal, closely cherished, and involved traveling abroad hence it can be assumed that he may have purchased or commissioned this work from Cabanel directly.
*This lot may be exempt from sales tax as set forth in the Sales Tax Notice in the back of the catalogue.
fig 1 - Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Vénus Anadyomène, 1848.
fig 2 - François Boucher, La naissance de Vénus, 1743, Private Collection, New York.
fig 4 - Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée D'Orsay, Paris.
fig 6 - Photograph illustrating a room at Henry Gibson's Philadelphia home with the present work seen at the left.
fig 3 - Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863, Musée D'Orsay, Paris.
fig 5 - Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1875, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.