Two depictions of a sleeping Venus, Goddess of Love

Deena Sherman

I have brought together Giorgio Barbarelli Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus and juxtaposed it to Venus and Cupid by Nicolas Poussin. Both depict the slumbering (Greek and Roman) Goddess of Love, Venus.

Italy’s Giorgione painted Sleeping Venus in 1508-10 on oil on canvas. Venus is depicted on a satin sheet and wine-red pillow. Venus sleeps serenely with one arm above her head and the other strategically placed over her crotch. In the background is a landscape of buildings, trees and mountains.

Giorgione, who was well educated and, in addition to his painting, was also a musician and poet, died before the Sleeping Venus was complete. The artist, Titian, finished the painting. Giorgione usually selected romantic mythological figures in harmony with nature. The warm tones and soft modeling colors produce a harmonious, peaceful painting. The Venus embodies the ideal of beauty of the high Renaissance. She takes up almost the entire width of the foreground. The landscape behind her includes a tree stump that represented fertility in many paintings at the time.

France’s Nicolas Poussin painted The Sleeping Venus and Cupid on oil on canvas. It was completed in 1630. Venus and Cupid shows a sleeping Venus with two cupids – one on either side of her. Venus’ brightness is in contrast to the duller surrounding figures and landscape which make the latter somewhat difficult to see. Cupid, in Roman mythology was Venus’ son, and the two cupids depicted in the painting are in close proximity to her. As the goddess of love, Venus was the “queen of pleasure” and considered mother of the Roman people. Watching over her near her head are two observers, possibly suitors or voyeurs. Recently there has been a description of people taking advantage sexually of others who are sleeping and perhaps Poussin, somewhat ahead of his time, is alluding to this. In the middleground are two lovers and some sheep that Venus possibly counted before she fell asleep. Poussin was one of the greatest exponents of classicism and was regarded as the greatest living artist by his contemporaries.

Both painting belong to the Art Gallery of Dresden.

Sources: The Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001; The Oxford Companion to English Literature; FEDOROFF, J.P., BRUNET, A., WOODS, V., GRANGER, C., CHOW, E., COLLINS, P., and SHAPIRO, C.M. A case-controlled study of men who sexually assault sleeping victims.

In: Forensic Aspects of Sleep. C.M. Shapiro and R.A.A. McCall Smith(eds), John Wileand Sons, London, pp. 85-98, 1997