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Titian, Venus of Urbino

Titian's masterpiece, "Venus of Urbino," highlights sensuality and beauty with a reclining nude figure. Employing glazing techniques, the painting achieves a soft, radiant look. The composition divides the canvas, balancing the figure with a background scene. This influential artwork inspired numerous artists, solidifying the female nude as a prominent genre during the Renaissance. Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538, oil on canvas, 119.20 x 165.50 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in the Uffizi and we're looking at one of the great Titian's, the Venetian master, who has painted here in an image which is often referred to as the Venus of Urbino, which is a title that the painting acquired later in its life. Beth: So we don't really know who she is. Steven: Right and there's not much to convey the idea that she's a Venus except that she's nude. It seems to be a protective title that makes it acceptable subject matter. Beth: Which was often the case in the history of our "after this" that one could look at a image of a nude woman and think about ideas of beauty, safe from a sense of improper looking by understanding the figure as Venus instead of a nude woman. Steven: But it's clear that whoever she is, this is a painting that is about sensuality, it's about the sort of the beauty of the physical. She is gazing directly at us with a coyness and a directness that is really alluring. Beth: It is and the way that her long, silky hair frames her breasts and the way that she holds the flowers near her skin and the sensuality of the sheet and the couch, it feels like a very sensual environment. But mostly the sensuality I think emerges because of the incredible softness that we sense from the paint. Steven: So Titian is a Venetian as we mentioned, he's coming out of this extraordinarily rich tradition, I'm thinking about the work of Bellini and the way in which these artists borrowed from actually the painting of Flanders and brought oil paint to Italy and began to experiment in very sophisticated ways with glazing, creating a softness as you said but a richness of color and a visual sensuality, which is the perfect vehicle for the sensuality of the subject matter here. Beth: And by glazing we're talking about a specific way of applying the paint where the artist applies very thin layers of oil paint that are almost translucent, one on top of the other. Titian was supposed to have painted up to 10 to 15 layers of paint. So the figure glows in a softness, her outlines and in the modeling, that enhances that sensuality, as you said. Steven: Titian's use of chiaroscuro in combination with that glazing and the softness has created this real sense of her flesh that is so central to this painting. We have also, Titian setting up this tradition of the reclining nude that will be the given for virtually the rest of Western art history. We can certainly think of Manet and lots of people in between. She is creating a kind of soft diagonal, a kind of curve that moves from the upper left to the lower right of the canvas, propped up by pillows. Beth: The canvas itself is divided in two, with a scene taking place in the background so our eye moves down her body and then to the background. Steven: And those figures in the background on the right really balance the mass of her body on the left without distracting from it because they are in the distance, so it's a really successful composition. Beth: And like so many other artists later who are going to paint the female nude, there is a little bit of playing fast and loose with human anatomy here. Her torso is too long. Steven: Her feet are tiny. Beth: (laughs) That's true, her feet are tiny, I hadn't noticed that before. It's funny that it's not something we notice immediately. What we notice as soon as we look at it is her incredible beauty and sensuality and sexuality and it's only when we start to really look closely and pay attention that we notice those problems. Steven: So think about all the artists that are looking back to this painting and this kind of painting. I'm thinking about Courbet, we've already mentioned Manet. Beth: Ang. Steven: That's right, so many people who are reinventing what Titian did. Beth: And Titian himself is looking back at a painting by Giorgione, so this emergence of the female nude as a genre really begins in the Renaissance. (piano playing)