A Second Look

In a piece (Young and Gifted, The New Yorker, 6/25/12) about the George Bellows retrospective at the National Gallery, Peter Schjeldal wrote; "...... a startling nude of an ill-at-ease woman posed after the one in Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass" (and cribbed by Manet from Giorgione's "The Tempest").
I shall follow up on Mr. Schjeldal's postulation.  Do the nudes of Bellows and Manet have the same source and how are they alike or unlike?

As with so many such questions we must begin with the Greeks.  Plato, in his Symposium, asserts that there are two Aphrodites whom he calls Celestial and Vulgar (also know to us as Venus Coelestis and Venus Naturalis).  This assertion struck a deep seated human feeling.  The allusion became an axiom of Medieval and Renaissance art and philosophy.  Making Venus celestial became a recurring goal of Western art even beyond the Renaissance.  Originally, the Greeks took the plump prehistoric figure, like the Venus of Willendorf, and with their penchant for geometrical discipline transformed the figure into the Cycladic idol.

Miss Vulgar Miss Divine

This Classic model, which I label "Miss Divine", will evolve into such marvels as this Roman copy (below left) of an original Greek "Crouching Aphrodite".

Aphrodite Birth of Venus

The Florentines will pick up the pieces of classical Greek art and in the 15th century give us such divine images as Botticelli's  "Birth of Venus" (above).  In Florence Venus rose from the sea, but in Venice her sister the Natural Venus was born, or reborn, in an environment of thick foliage: see Titian's
"Pastoral Symphony" (below).  Giorgione, another Venetian, in what has been called the first landscape in Western art, seems to merge Natural Venus with the Madonna figure.

Luncheon on the Grass (Dejuner sur l'herbe), Manet The Tempest (La Tempesta), Giorgione

By depicting the head of his own wife on a naked body Manet jeopardized the premise of the nude and scandalized the audience of 1863 Paris. This was intentional: épater la bourgeoisie was the idea.  On close examination any claim of Manet "cribbing" the figure from The Tempest is found wanting.  What Manet did copy was the Venetian tradition of placing the Natural Venus in a landscape with fully clothed male figures.  Critics feared Manet had cheapened the figure of the classic nude; they actually feared too much truth in the portrayal of the nude. The protest surrounding the Monet nude reveals more about Victorian hypocrisy than about the quality of Monet's art. My concern is with the second figure bathing with her clothing on (?) and as the figure is not in perspective, she must be a giant. Is this a twist on the divine nude Venus rising from the sea?.

Pastoral Symphony (Titian)


Judgement of Paris (Marcantonio). Raphael created the drawing for the sole purpose of having it engraved by Marcantonio.
"....public and critics were screaming with horror at the nude in Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe, unaware that her outlines were taken directly from Raphael."
         -Kenneth Clark (The Nude, p. 161)

Clark (The Nude, p. 122) traces the nude in the landscape back to the poetical Golden Age.  In the visual arts the equivalent is Raphael's "Judgment of Paris", known through Marcantonio's engraving (above)..."which was to inspire a long line of academic compositions ending, most surprisingly, with Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe."  The figure we can identify with Manet's nude is the figure gazing back at the viewer in the center right of the engraving.



George Bellow, Nude Van Gogh, Sorrow

As far as the Bellows nude is concerned, she seems  more like Van Gogh's "Sorrow" than the self assured Madame Manet in "The Picnic".


After the Victorians rediscovered Botticelli's Venus she entered public consciousness and embody the values of post-classical secular civilization: an icon  to be deconstructed in one tacky version after another for the next century.  When the Bond Girl Ursula Andress rose from the sea in a white bikini in Dr No in 1962 she shows the goddess still has some magic, in spite of the likes of Andy Warhol.


venus ursula




The Russian artist Serge Marshennikov seems to have made the nude fresh again.