“Venus at a Mirror”

We are but spectators of art, valuing and revaluing art and its composition, form, colour and space that it enfolds.

With the given title, we are drawn into the ethereal dichotomy, taxonomy or could it be trichotomy between antiquity, social media and diversity (the perception of the Venus Figure vis-à-vis as A Model of Love & Beauty in the new era of ‘selfies’ and Equality?

Selfie: a self-portrait type image, typically taken with a smartphone which may be held in the hand or supported by a selfie stick

Peter Paul Rubens, has created a mood of playfulness within the composition and its content, which draws the viewer to question the meaning of his ‘concetto’ (concept in English) and its particular audience (the viewer).  Rubens has synthesized the elements of form, color and space in such a manner, that he invites the viewer into a vivid space of flesh and sensuality with the paint brush and oils as medium.  Three figures are portrayed within a compact space on a vertically placed canvas.


From left, Cupid Boy

From right, The Maiden Girl

Drawing reference to Caravaggio (concetto) or possibly Sappho (sapphic)

Starting from left, we have a young figure of a nude boy with dark wings, which have been partially cut off due to the confines of the canvas.  He holds a dark framed mirror with his arm extended vertically to accommodate Venus seated beside him.  We could assume the boy as being cupid.  His dark wings are reminiscent to Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” otherwise known as earthly love (love conquers all) from Ovid’s writings.  Here, the cupid enhances the subject matter of Venus and the symbol of love, or a possible love triangle, with the maiden fondling Venus’s hair?

COLOUR Contrast between three figures – left to centre to right (an allegory).

Luminous ‘Venus’ as centre piece

Dark skinned figure to the right

Venus is portrayed as the centre piece, a voluptuous female nude with a radiant luminous skin and flowing golden hair.  The the right of Venus we have a portrayal of a standing female woman, almost mask-like in appearance, piercing through a dark and mysterious background.  This strong contrast in colour and form divides and juxtaposes the two figures in their fleshly tones.  Moreover, the radiance set off from Venus is extended with its reflection of the exotic skin of the girl, whom holds and an expression of admiration towards Venus’s confident and sensual play of voyeurism, embalmed with an abundance of attention.

  • PLAYFULNESS through (FORM) the Duality of depth and mirror
  • Contrast frontal and rear
  •  Ambiguous gaze

What draws our dual attention is the lack of depth in the background, yet, the added picture space created through the mirror being held up by the cherub.   The central Venus figure is portrayed with her back towards us, yet her (frontal) graceful gaze is apparent in the mirror.  In viewing the profile of her face, in contrast with the frontal reflection in the mirror, we notice a different awareness of her expression.  This ambiguous gaze is directed towards the viewer and draws one into the temptation of her reflection in the mirror.  She hides, yet is fully aware of her presence and the gaze of the audience.

  • OMINOUS TWIST, Cupid as accomplice to Venus
  • Cupid’s strange tooth protrusion
  • Mocking the meaning of Love

We investigate the cherubs face with mouth slightly ajar with protruding tooth, not to mention the accompanied mischievous side glare he offers as accomplice to Venus.  This gives the subject matter an ominous twist, as if to convey a message to mock the meaning of love.  Whereas the graceful bonding of female touch enhances the gaze to a further level.

  • GAZE within composition and the viewer
  • Triangular form
  • X-Form

Sense of movement which creates a psychology between the viewer and the three figures.

The playfulness that Rubens creates with the ‘gaze’ leads one to follow directional lines within the compositional structure and its forms.  In viewing the cupid, the mirror, Venus and the Girl, we notice a triangular form that encloses the three busts.  We can also note the play of diagonals, which create an X-form, as in the diagonal running from the head of the cherub to Venus and onto the Girl.  The opposite diagonal starts with the mirror frame and ends with the flowing golden hair of Venus, which is being fondled by he Girl.  Thus, Rubens manages to create a sense of movement for the viewer’s eye, and extends the elements into psychological temptations, invoked by his composition.

  • The Viewer
  • The temptation initiated
  • Concetto with scripts from Genesis
  • Sapphic meter

A playful game is initiated, with the movement of the eye of the viewer and the temptations innate within the genesis of mankind and its desires.  Besides Venus being in the nude and centrally monumentally seated on a crimson red fabric, caressed by the ‘exotic’ girl, she too is adorned with jewels to entice the male viewer even further.  We could draw parallels with the temptations of Adam and Eve, Eve being the Venus who tempts Adam (the audience) into condemnation or we could follow the Sapphic meter (7th-century BC Greek poetess, Sappho) as symbol of love and desire between women – with the English words sapphic and lesbian being derived from her own name and the name of her home island respectively – the island of Les(b)vos (Λέσβος / Lésbos).

Reference: Rayor, Diane; Lardinois, André (2014). Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-02359-8
Most of Sappho’s poetry is now lost, and what is extant has survived only in fragmentary form, except for one complete poem: the “Ode to Aphrodite” (Venus)

.The Baroque style (17th Century, 1600’s) is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail (narratives) used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music.

By Demetrios Voulgarellis

For my Love of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Erwin Panofsky

Nicolas Poussin developed a theory of art, otherwise known as his ‘theory of modes’ which held that every element of a painting had a powerful psychological impact on the viewer, thus each of the elements of color, line, and form must be visualized in a clear, logical and orderly manner.

Poussin based this theory in part on ancient Greek music theory.  Poussin’s concept initiated the theoretical backbone of all his mature art, and subsequently the syllabus for the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (1647).

Did you know?

In contrast to iconography. Erwin Panofsky defines iconography as “a known principle in the known world”, while iconology is “an iconography turned interpretive”.

The terms iconology and iconography are derived from the Greek word for image (είκών) combined with either the word for writing (γράφειν, to write, thus iconography) or with the word for reason and thought (λόγος, thus iconology). The two terms are closely connected and have often been used interchangeably. However, different meanings can be attributed to each term.

Knowledge through Travel

Passion for The Arts

Tolerance – Diversity – Equality

(c) 2019 Demetrios Voulgarellis

Owner & Founder of O Live To Travel (Pty) Ltd.

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