I am quite open to all art concepts and themes. I therefore don’t have an issue with nudity in art, but I can understand why some people feel that nudity in art is overwhelming or confrontational. While in my own little bubble I don’t encounter censorship or adverse reactions to art as I bumble around, generally not taking in the perceptions of others when I’m viewing a piece, censorship is there to maintain a morality to boundaries which artists like to push. This said, some artists take censorship and make a tongue in cheek play to match the reverent strictness of what meets conformity.
Peale painted this in 1822, and demonstrates a humour and wit to his style as well as a veiled eroticism. Now I know what you might be thinking… “WidowC, this looks like a table clothe on a washing line… what is possibly erotic about this?” Well sit back and let me tell you.
Firstly Venus, goddess of love, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory, and this is an odd way to depict her, as we are so used to seeing her feminine attributes on show, especially on her ascent from the ocean, yet what we see of her here is a slender arm with her flaxen locks held in her delicate hand, the hair falling over her pale limb provocatively. We also see one delicate foot. Flowers blooming where she steps indicating her attribute of fertility.
So why cover her? This is a visual pun by the artist and a swipe at censorship. The sheet is reminiscent of the cloth of honour, which is usually hung behind thrones and forms a canopy. This acts as a barrier between the viewer and the potential of seeing Venus. Usually when new works of art are hung they are behind a curtain before the big reveal and some of the more “risqué” art works can only be viewed behind a curtain. Peale uses this as his deception. The cloth, hung to tape, divides the canvas in what would otherwise be blank space, the regimented lines from the folds replacing the folds of skin that would otherwise be on show. The only unnatural fold, is where her sex should be, in a clear move of hidden eroticism, the odd pleat in the lower centre of the sheet. This creates a sexual tension to the piece, which has been perceived by critics as more powerful that actually seeing the form of Venus herself.
The cloth itself resembles a tablecloth, a stable for still life at the time this painting was created, and the crisply ironed cloth serves as a tribute to the realism of the piece.
Interestingly the arm and the foot of Venus in this painting appears to be a homage to an earlier painting created by James Barry in 1722, you can see below the same arm and foot with the blossoming flowers.
I find this piece so interesting in its subtleties and humour. The dark background enhancing the white cloth and emphasising the folds. The hidden feminine shape, obscured by the covering and the understated attention to detail.
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