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The History of Sleeping Venus by Giorgione and Titian

Sleeping Venus is a sensual, sumptuous artwork that is attributed both to Venetian artist Titian and his teacher, Giorgione. One of the first full-length female nudes ever painted in Venice, this portrayal of Venus has been called one of the most beautiful reclining nudes in existence. In this article, Singulart explores the art trope of the reclining nude, explains why this painting is dedicated to both Titian and Giorgione, and discusses the composition of Sleeping Venus

Titian or Giorgione?

Although he died tragically young, Giorgione was a defining figure in the high renaissance movement. Little is known about his life – there is no documentation of his preferences or techniques, and no record of who may have commissioned him or of the demands of his patrons. 

Giorgio Vasari, author of The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), wrote in his 1568 edition of Lives that Giorgione was responsible for a shift in the Venetian art scene, whereas before he had noted him merely as a student of Bellini. Famous works of Giorgione include The Tempest, which depicts a young mother feeding her child while being watched by a young man, and The Sunset, which portrays an elderly man attending to the wounds of a younger man, amidst a rocky landscape by the sea. 

Titian was a devoted student of Giorgione, until the latter’s death in 1510. Giorgione had started work on Sleeping Venus, painting the form of the figure and the luxurious sheets she is draped on, but succumbed to the plague before its completion. It is generally agreed that Titian finished the artwork by painting the landscape in the background and a cherub at Venus’s feet (which was later painted out). However, it has been debated whether Giorgione did in fact paint the nude, as historians are now arguing that the female in the piece was also the work of Titian. 

Composition of Sleeping Venus 

Giorgione and Titian, Sleeping Venus (1510)

The curves of Venus’s body mimic the rolling, lush hills of the landscape behind her. The pose depicts Venus in a sensual nature, however the fact that she appears to be sleeping suggests she is not overtly sexual, as she is not arranging herself for the male gaze. The relaxed state of Venus, with one hand cradling her head and the other gently covering her groin, suggests a oneness of her body with nature. As critic Sydney Joseph Friedberg writes in Painting in Italy, 1500-1600: Volume 35

“The shape of being is the visual demonstration of a state of being in which idealized existence is suspended in immutable slow-breathing harmony. All the sensuality has been distilled off from this sensuous presence, and all incitement; Venus denotes not the act of love but the recollection of it. The perfect embodiment of Giorgione’s dream, she dreams his dream herself.”

Although the artwork uses predominantly warm hues, symbolizing the warmth and beauty of nature, the sheets that the woman is lying on are a cold-hued silver. It’s a stark contrast not only to the rich, red hues of the sheet at the nude’s head, but also to the color palette of the piece as a whole. This suggests the sheets could have been a later addition by Titian. 

The artwork differs from other depictions of Greek and Roman goddesses of the time; even if they were portrayed sleeping, which was unusual, it was while they were being discovered by another party. Even a cupid, originally painted at Venus’s feet by Titian, has been painted over at some point after the piece’s completion, and the artwork now shows Venus sleeping alone and comfortably in nature. 

Critics have noted the appearance of small wildflowers around Venus’s head, and speculated that they could be the anemone ranunculoides. In Titian, Colonna and the Renaissance Science of Procreation: Equicola’s Seasons of Desire, author Anthony Colantuono says that this flower is a particular motif in the story of Venus and Adonis, and could suggest that she has been dreaming of her lover. He states that the appearance of these flowers, coupled with Venus’s suggestive hand placement, could mean that she was “dreaming of sexual fulfillment.”

The reclining nude – why was this pose popular? 

Sleeping Venus was unusual for its time in that it was a large scale depiction of a reclining nude, echoed later in Titian’s Venus of Urbino. However, the reclining nude became a popular pose for artists to paint. Known also as the odalisque pose, it was the way that artists painted females (particularly Venus) for hundreds of years, perhaps afraid of the controversy that would arise from painting a woman – even a depiction of a goddess – in a more erotic pose. 

 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque (1814)

The reclining nude pose was used in pieces by Bronzino, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Vélasquez, all also showing a rendition of Venus. However, in later artworks such as Grande Odalisque by Ingres, the pose was used to depict real women (in this case a concubine in a sumptuous chamber – the word ‘odalisque’ derives from the Turkish term odalik, meaning a chambermaid). It was used in perhaps its most striking manner by Manet, whose piece Olympia was arguably the first artwork to show the nude looking directly at the viewer, frank and unashamed in her provocative pose and owning her sexuality. 

 Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863)
Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863)

Undoubtedly, these pieces were influenced by Sleeping Venus. The enduring impact of the way Giorgione and Titian have painted their Venus is still a major influence on nude paintings.  

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