Venus vs. Vanitas


Leslie Parke, “Venus”, oil on linen

Recently I painted some paintings of The Art Newspaper crumpled up. Besides playing with images of “garbage” and recycled materials, with these crunched up bits of paper it was possible to distort and juxtapose paintings from many different eras. While working on the painting Venus, I saw an image of a skull in the hair on the shoulder of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and I wasn’t sure if it was an aberration caused by the distortion of the picture or if it was visible in the original. And, if it was, was it intended?

This sent me back to the original to find out.

Venus of Urbino by Titian

Venus of Urbino by Titian

Months later, while touring the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, I came across an image of a skull next to the head of a woman in a 15th Century French tapestry. The guard told me that it signified that the person was deceased. The placement of the skull on her shoulder made me wonder if this was an iconography with which Titian was familiar.

Detail of Tapestry at the Hyde Collection

Detail of Tapestry at the Hyde Collection

Although I was unable to find out if there was any significance to the placement of the skull on the shoulder, I did discover (thanks to Wikipedia) that a skull missing a lower jaw was a symbol of a rake!


Here is the section of the Titian in question and a picture of a skull for comparison:

Venus of Urbino has had many interpretations, the most prevalent of which is that this is a wedding painting; something meant to be a bit instructive to the bride, perhaps meant to get the juices flowing. But upon closer examination, it is a mixed bag of promptings and admonitions.

In a typical Vanitas painting, one is reminded of the fleeting nature of beauty by the presence of a rotting apple or a snuffed candle. Here, could it be death itself that tempers ardor for such beauty?

Is this too much of a stretch? Titian’s Venus of Urbino is rife with symbols, yet the meaning of the painting has remained somewhat ambiguous. Is it a bridal painting, as is implied by the wedding chests in the background. Or is it meant to be an erotic painting, or depiction of a courtesan?

Some of the explanations of the symbolism are as follows:  white bed linen — purity;  crimson bed and  red roses — love;  fading red roses and  fallen rose — death;  pattern of black flowers,  black enamels of the bracelet, widow’s black ring and  triangular black spot — mourning;  green drapery — hope;  pearl — symbol of passing, “Vanitas”;  small dog — marital faithfulness;  green myrtle in the jardiniere — marital love;  column — symbol of virtue of bravery and boldness “Fortitudo,” also the emblem of the house of Colonna; and  “cassoni” — bridal chests as well as other significant elements. In Titian’s picture all of these symbols concur in the creation of an allegory of love and at the same time of the philosophical treatise which is a reflection on life, death, love and on the temporary earthly time which should be enjoyed. []

The Oxford Companion goes on: The skull as an intimation of death was also an obvious aspect of sixteenth-century century fashion and art. In the early decades of the century, portraits had skulls printed on the back in order to symbolize the inevitable demise of the sitter. Men and women of the upper classes wore medallions engraved with skulls and ivory heads as jewelry. These objects normally portrayed a living face on one side and the human skull on the other side. The mementos were to remind both the wearer and the onlooker of death and their obligation to lead moral lives. The keepsakes also revealed the tension experienced by members of the upper classes who desired to display their wealth while appearing to obey the dictates of Christian piety. []

Perhaps, as with the Victorian painting of the woman at her “vanity”, the meaning is in the eye of the beholder.






Christina’s World: Or the Martha Stewart of Down East

The Olson House, Cushing, Maine

I finally visited the Olson House, the former home of Christina Olson, Andrew Wyeth‘s model for “Christina’s World“. Wyeth was brought  to the Olsons by Betsy James, who he later married. Betsy wanted to show Andrew the real Maine. And real it was.

Christina's World

Andrew Wyeth, "Christina's World"

Christina lived in the house with her brother Alvaro. She was crippled and house bound. She moved about the house on a chair that she somehow managed to thump across the floor. The odor in the house must have been horrific, as she was often left to relieve herself on a stack of newspapers slid onto the seat of her chair.

Anna Cristina

Andrew Wyeth, "Anna Christina"

This bleak and tattered existence offers up a simple aesthetic that is stark and pure; faded peeling paper in one room, cracked plaster in another, floors rubbed down to their grain. Its easy to understand the appeal.

Olson House
Front Windows of the Olson House

Olson house
Olson House Upstairs Bedroom

Doorway Olson House
Doorway, Olson House

Oak Leaf Patterned Floor – Olson House

Wyeth is not a personal favorite, but having visited Chads Forth, Monhegan and now the Olson House, I certainly appreciate these places that inspired his work.

Andrew Wyeth

The Olson House

If you go:

The Olson House

Farnsworth Museum

Brandywine River Museum

The Hyde Collection

Books of Interest: