Mark Twain Looks at Titian’s Venus

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.

Twain writes:

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”.

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19 thoughts on “Mark Twain Looks at Titian’s Venus

  1. Jeff says:

    I’m not sure. It might be true with paintings, but definitely not with visual arts in general, at least not any more. There are a great many scenes in mainstream novels from the last 100 years that couldn’t be transferred literally into a mainstream film, today. We allow fairly frank discussions of many things in fiction that would never make it onto a movie or television screen for a variety of reasons.

    • artmodel says:

      Jeff,

      Great points. And hello by the way! Long time no comment 😥

      I suppose there is a dated element to Twain’s thesis, especially when we bring in other forms of visual arts like you mentioned – movies, TV. However, they may not apply in that Twain, I think, was talking about a beautiful work of fine art which carries strong, impressive artistic qualities. I wouldn’t say that TV shows fall into the same category.

      What came to mind as I pondered Twain’s view was all the banned books. That’s a long list, and an embarrassing one. I can’t think offhand of any banned paintings.

      Thanks for commenting, Jeff! And Happy Fourth of July 🙂

      Claudia

      • Jeff says:

        I’m writing another book while maintaining a full client workload. I haven’t had time to sculpt either, so it’s definitely not personal that I haven’t been around.

        While I tend to agree about the artistic merit of television — I haven’t watched television since around 1992 — but artistic merit is frighteningly subjective and not a good basis for setting up rules of what’s okay and what’s not. This is a beautiful painting, but does it have more “artistic merit” than Courbet’s L’Origine du monde? Is it okay to ban that one? Artistic merit leaves too fuzzy of a line, makes it too easy for the petty people.

        There have been a lot of books banned, but the prudes and other malcontents have had a much greater headstart given that the printing press was a 16th century invention, while photography was a nineteenth century invention, and motion pictures (for practical purposes) didn’t get going until the 20th century.

        There are a great many things that society at large (not the prudes and malcontents) accepts in written or even spoken form that we think is “going too far” if it’s actually captured on film.

        Your comment about “banned paintings” is a little off, though – paintings are not mass produced, so there’s no reason to ban them. There are a great many that museums won’t show. Many of the more erotic pieces of sculpture and mosaic art from Pompeii weren’t shown in museums or featured in art books for the first hundred years after being excavated. Hell, in 2009 in Portugal, police siezed and burned several copies of a book for containing L’Origin of the world. In 2009 a painting from 1866 is still causing problems for people.

        Unfortunately, the bottom line is that there are people who feel a strong need to enforce their moralities on others, and that’s not unique to any one media. 😦

  2. Stephanie says:

    Hi Claudia,

    I so enjoyed this post. I happen to be reading Huckleberry Finn and it such an incredible book. I had never read it before. I tried once when I was a kid and couldn’t get into it, but now I’m loving it! It’s perfect that you would write about Mark Twain right now, like you read my mind.

    Love,
    Steph

    • artmodel says:

      Steph,

      Good for you reading Huck Finn! Great book. And I love that this post coincided with it. I wish I could say that I read your mind. Hmm . . . maybe I did? 😆

      Claudia

  3. doug rogers says:

    Too funny, and so parochial of me, but I have always thought the deftly placed hand was a sign of her modesty.

    • artmodel says:

      doug,

      You’re not parochial, your mind just isn’t in the gutter like the rest of us! 😆

      You’re right, though, that that hand placement often indicates modesty, but in the case of the Titian, it’s those curled fingers that make the difference. Seems minor but it’s not. If she was simply trying to cover her private area her hand would be placed over it more thoroughly.

      I mentioned the Botticelli Venus in the post, and that painting is a good example of the modesty gesture. But she’s not reclining. In case anyone needs a refresher here it is:

      Thanks doug!

      Claudia

  4. Bill MacDonald says:

    I’ve been a Twain fan for many years, but I don’t agree with him on this one. I have a figure show scheduled for the local library in November, and I have to use discretion in the hanging of any nude work. Yet I’m sure that there are novels on the shelved adjacent to the exhibit that feature scenes that would make my poor nudes blush! (And I have heard that some libraries do not allow nude art at all,)

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      Nudes get hassled and persecuted everywhere, don’t they? It’s crazy. Not surprised you’ll have to be careful hanging your show.

      I think that Twain, though, was focusing more on the implied act of the nude rather than her just being nude. That’s how I read it at least. Maybe it’s like the difference between looking at a Playboy centerfold, which is hardly a big deal anymore, and reading those sex stories in Penthouse Forum. Bad analogy? 😉

      Thanks for your comment!

      Claudia

  5. Fred says:

    I just love Mark Twain. I think the painting gets away with it because it’s ambiguous, and part of Twain’s humor is in his pretending that it’s so blatant there could be no other interpretation.

    But look, Titian didn’t make that “attitude” up – he copied it from an earlier Venus by Giorgione (dated 1510): http://www.arts-crafts-hobbiesanddiy.com/Giorgione%27s%20Sleeping%20Venus.htm

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      I find the Giorgione nowhere near as great a painting as the Titian. I like the figure, but the background is insipid. None of this is the point, just wanted to throw that in.

      Also, I’ll say that neither Titian NOR Giorgione invented that “attitude” – it was the courtesans of Europe! Women everywhere really 😉

      Thanks Fred.

      Claudia

      • Fred says:

        Laying aside comparisons, the Giorgione “Sleeping Venus” is considered the first modern treatment of the nude in art, a revolutionary and historically important painting. Sources say Giorgione left it unfinished and Titian finished the landscape portion of it. About twenty-five years later he copied the pose almost exactly for his “Venus of Urbino”, including that hand position.

        Here’s a link to an article on “masturbating Venuses”: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-166945226.html

  6. “Mark Twain described it as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses””, (any everybody wanted to view it.) and somebody, I don’t remember who described Twain’s 1601 as the most famous piece of pornography produced in America (I just looked up the quote in wikipedia: …according to Edward Wagenknecht, “the most famous piece of pornography in American literature.”) {and I bought a copy of it.}. I think both quotes make the point of the old advertising agency adage; There is no such thing as bad publicity. 🙂

    Great post professor Claudia!

  7. Jennifer says:

    Well, you’ve made me look at this differently – I’d always just thought she was v relaxed 🙂

  8. Ron says:

    Looks like a lot of painters are copying (or inspired by) the same theme. Look at Manet’s Olympia. http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/manet/olympia/olympia.jpg

  9. hp says:

    I am afraid the whole thread here is based on a wrong premiss – that Mark Twain castigated people for prudishness while himself being perfectly comfortable with Titian’s Venus. Far from it, to my mind, if we look how the next sentences in his paragraph read:

    “There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art.”

    As I see it, here he all of a sudden let go of his ironic tone for just long enough to make us understand what he really felt about the picture. (Incidentally, he also gives away the complete familiarity of end-19th c. males with brothels – bagnio being a thinly veiled euphemism perfectly transparent for his audience). Only in the last sentence he reverts to his ironic self, but not very convincingly.

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