In his 1880 travelogue Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain described it as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”. It wasn’t the nudity that prompted such a statement but rather “the attitude of one of her arms and hand”. The painting is Titian’s Renaissance masterpiece Venus of Urbino, and the “attitude” to which Twain refers is one of implied self-gratification. Talk about an “active” figure! 😉
The work was commissioned in 1538 by Guidobaldo Il Della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino. Although the Duke simply requested a nude, Titian made her – or titled her – “Venus”. But she is not the classical mythological figure to which we are accustomed. This is not Botticelli’s Venus. Instead, Titian’s is an object of erotica, a seductive siren whose blatant sexuality borders on obscenity, at least by 16th century standards.
This is Titian’s Venus of Urbino:
Titian was certainly not the first artist to paint a reclining female nude, but it’s that left hand placement which supplies the game-changing characteristic. Shocked viewers think, “This woman is pleasuring herself!”. Nonchalantly. Casually. Completely indifferent to the people in the next room. The sleeping dog, I suspect, could not care less 😆
Like most of Titian’s models, the exact identity of his Venus is unknown, which is too bad. Many believe she was Titian’s favorite girl from a Venice brothel. Others think it might have been the Duke’s young bride-to-be. Either way, she is the immortal subject of what is widely considered “the sexiest painting” ever created.
As for Mark Twain’s reaction after having entered the Uffizi Gallery and laid his eyes upon Venus of Urbino, his words are taken terribly out of context. Internet articles quote him constantly as proof of the painting’s offensiveness, but they are missing the larger point. The entire passage needs to be read. Like the humorist and social commentator that he was, Twain’s expression of moral outrage was not literal but feigned to make a point about artistic incarnation.
If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl –but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to –and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her –just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world…yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words.
Twain is making the rather astute observation that a written description of such a scene – a woman touching herself – would prompt horror and discomfort, and probably cause the author to be run out of town. But a visual depiction – which carries beautiful, decorative qualities of technique and composition along with the scene – makes a sexy, lascivious painting tolerable, even acceptable, for it is still a glorious, timeless expression of nudity and sexuality despite pushing the boundaries of social mores. It is still celebrated, still embraced. Twain believes that he would never get away with it if he described it in writing and that painters are given more latitude. I think he has a point, don’t you? Processing words is a different mental exercise than processing images. Could it be that one of them makes us squirm more than the other?
So the next time an artist feels his freedom of expression is threatened or unappreciated, he should probably be grateful that he’s not a writer and keep in mind Mark Twain’s envious words that “art has its privileges”.