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What is she doing?

November 11, 2012

Titian’s Venus of Urbino

Is she? Or is she modestly covering herself? Mark Twain was in no doubt. Here’s what he wrote:

“You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world–the Tribune–and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses–Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed–no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. 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 young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze 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–just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one’s own eyes–yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be.

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 too strong for any place but a public Art Gallery. Titian has two Venuses in the Tribune; persons who have seen them will easily remember which one I am referring to.”

The painting has inspired many artists.  TF Chen’s Venus Today and African Venus, performance artist Kalup Linzy, Skip Rohde’s Venus of Ashville, Krassimir Kolev’s Amanda from Boras, and Ramiro Arrango’s gourd Venus.


Not to mention the most controversial of all, Manet’s Olympia. Whatever else she was up to, she wasn’t masturbating.

Just in case you’re wondering, here’s the other Titian Venus in the Uffizi.  Venus and Cupid with a partridge.   I think I can see which one Mark Twain means.


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