Titian’s Venus with an Organist (c.1550)

A series of paintings by Titian over the course of three decades depict the nude figure of Venus accompanied by a musician. Each of them is directly comparable to Manet’s Olympia which I have separately shown represents a painting (Olympia) accompanied by the artist himself holding a palette (the maid with flowers). Now let us look at some of Titian’s paintings in light of that finding.

Rona Goffen noted certain problems or visual inconsistencies that make little sense of Titian's supposed narratives. Venus, for example, is often much larger than her male admirer and sometimes much older as well. Nor would the customer have performed for the courtesan but the other way round. In addition, Titian's Venuses seem unaware of the musicians' presence though he is always staring at her.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Venus and Cupid with an Organist (c.1545-8) Prado, Madrid

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What no-one has noticed is that the playing of music is a common metaphor in Western painting for the making of art itself.2 That explains why so many painters, like those performing at left, have portrayed themselves as musicians. Veronese in white at top painted himself facing Titian in a red cap. Below is a self-portrait of Lavinia Fontana. They are not boasting about the range of their accomplishments here but have turned an image of themselves "painting" into poetry.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Veronese and Titian as performing musicians in the foreground of Veronese's Marriage at Cana

Bottom: Lavinia Fontana, Self-portrait at a Spinet (1577)

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Titian's Venus, like the nude Olympia in Edouard Manet's eponymous painting, represents a painting with Titian as a musician/painter looking at his composition. That explains why Venus is out-of-scale (just like Manet's bather in Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe is and for the same reason): to indicate two different realities. It is also why the Venuses fail to acknowledge the artist/musician and why her figure is so closely parallel to the picture plane. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Venus with an Organist (c.1550) Prado, Madrid

Click image to enlarge.

One further feature is the sword or dagger that  each of the musicians carry. Pointed weapons are, as you can see under the theme Brush and Palette, a common symbol in art for a paintbrush whose shape they resemble, one further piece of evidence that the organist or lute-player is "an artist". With Venus as a "painting" Venus’ age relative to the musician is insignificant. She is not his courtesan but his “painting”. Lastly, in a visual inconsistency I have never seen noted, Venus' extended foot is clearly in front of the organist’s figure even though his costume is in front of her, her foot never disturbing the musician's tunic that it seemingly rests on. It is an M.C.Escher-like inconsistency, also apparent in other versions not illustrated here. One cannot reconcile both perceptions unless, of course, Venus is a “painting” fused in the artist’s mind with a musical metaphor of him "painting" her. Venus nude is the artist's iconic "painting".

 
 

Notes:

 

1. Rona Goffen, Titian's Women (Yale University Press) 1997, pp.159-166

2. The spiritelli playing music at the base of Giovanni Bellini's sixteenth-century altarpieces, often circled around the cartellino displaying his own name, metaphorically represent the artist performing his art. So do Watteau's many images of performing musicians.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Jun 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.