The Sleeping Venus by Giorgione
Interpretation of Venetian High Renaissance Reclining Nude

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The Sleeping Venus
By Giorgione.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

For analysis of paintings by
Venetian Renaissance artists
like Giorgione, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

The Sleeping Venus (1510)


So Who Was Giorgione?
Other Venetian Paintings Explained


Name: "The Sleeping Venus" (Dresden Venus)
Date: 1500
Artist: Giorgione (1477-1510)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: One of the great female nudes in art history
Movement: High Renaissance art
Location: Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

Analysis of The Sleeping Venus by Giorgione

A masterpiece of Venetian painting by one of the finest Old Masters of the Renaissance in Venice, The Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus) is a landmark work. For the first time in Renaissance art an almost life-sized nude fills the entire pictorial frame. It combines the the traditional styles of representing Venus and a sleeping spring nymph. In addition, like The Tempest (1506-8, Venice Academy Gallery), its landscape backdrop is also much more than just a scenic by-product; through its balanced composition it creates a mood that, along with the figure, creates a wonderful harmonious unity. These paintings paved the way for the development of the reclining female nude and landscape painting, upon which so much of Western painting has depended. Avidly collected by the avant-garde intelligentsia of Venice, Giorgione's enigmatic High Renaissance painting was characterized above all by a dreamy lyricism largely created by his gradualist sfumato colouring, his refined mixing of colour pigments, and his blend of figurative and scenic elements. As it was, his premature death from plague meant that the landscape and sky of The Sleeping Venus had to be completed by Titian (c.1488-1576) - a close colleague who had fallen under Giorgione's spell. He would later complete a similar work of his own, the Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence).

The picture depicts the reclining figure of a sleeping nude woman whose profile seems to merge with that of the hills in the background. In addition to her nudity, her raised arm and the placement of her left hand on her groin add to the erotic quality of the work, which is itself somewhat degraded by the metallic silver coloured sheets, painted (in preference to the more usual white linen ones) by Titian. But the surrounding landscape, in its colour and curves, harmonizes perfectly with the Venus, who sleeps and dreams of love. She symbolizes not the act of love but the recollection of it. As mentioned above, she was not only the first nearly life-size nude of the Italian Renaissance - Botticelli's Birth of Venus of 1484, was the first actual nude - she also personnified a new contemplative vision of nature and beauty, beginning a trend of 'reclining nudes' that continued in works such as The Sleeping Venus (1625-30) by Artemisia Gentileschi; The Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Velazquez; The Nude Maja (1797-1800) by Goya; Olympia (1863) by Manet; and the Reclining Nude (1917-18) By Modigliani.



So Who Was Giorgione?

He was good looking, he sang and played the lute like a professional, he painted - for an elite circle of refined amateurs - works whose meaning for the layman is problematic, even impenetrable. He was the young master of Titian, who was about the same age and who quickly became his rival, and his life ended when he was just thirty-three.

NOTE: For more about 16th century High Renaissance art in Venice, see: Venetian Altarpieces (1500-1600) and Venetian Portrait Painting (1400-1600). Read also about Venetian Drawing (1500-1600).

He tore through Venetian painting like a meteor. He was the pupil of the great Giovanni Bellini, who influenced him and whom he influenced in return. They talked and talked, and Giorgione became one of the first to abandon coloured drawing, and to paint directly without preparatory sketching. Nicknamed "great George" (Giorgione, in other words); it was through him that the "modern manner" arrived and triumphed. In about 1550, the famous biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was to name him - along with Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Raphael (1483-1520) - as one of the heroes of the new painting based on the notion of tonal colour.

Throughout his career, Giorgione was to adopt a fluid style, all subtlety and nuance, which - to express his infinitely delicate sensibility - often made use of raking light. And all this was couched in an atmosphere where the extreme gentleness of light and shade allows the landscape and figures to harmonize in a restful, almost deliquescent air. The lyrical purity it expresses is unique, ideal.

NOTE: For a comparison between the painting traditions of Venice and Florence, see: colorito and disegno.

Many historians of today turn their nose up when they hear that this Sleeping Venus is Giorgione's finest picture. "But it's not exactly a Giorgione," they'll tell you, "it's only partly by him. Look at the cloth under the nude that disrupts the whole composition; that's by Titian, as is much of the landscape." And when we turn to the commentators of the past: "The canvas of a nude Venus sleeping in a landscape with Cupid," writes Marcantonio Michiel in his Notes of 1525, "is in the hand of Zorzo da Castelfranco, but the landscape and the Cupid were completed by Titian." (because there was once a Cupid that has since been expunged by one of the legion of slapdash restorers).

All this is true; but the nude, which is indeed by Giorgione, and conjured up by his hand alone, is - there is no doubt - the most beautiful reclining nude in the world. Locked away in her dreams, blossoming, radiant, yet modest, she is at the same time pure and sensual. Even beleaguered by Titian's extraneous decor (the cloth undoubtedly, and the cushion) that sit so uncomfortably with the serene, pantheist poetry of the composition, the nude still shines brightly, weaving her spell. One has eyes only for her as she lies in line with the hills, eyes closed, in harmony with the world, beneath the dusting from a benevolent sun. See also: Legacy of Venetian Painting.

Other Famous Venetian Paintings Explained

For an interpretation of other paintings of the Renaissance in Venice, see the following articles:

Ecstasy of St. Francis (1480) Frick Collection, New York.
By Giovanni Bellini.

Portrait of Doges Leonardo Loredan (1502) National Gallery, London.
By Giovanni Bellini.

San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) Church of San Zaccaria, Venice.
By Giovanni Bellini.

Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.
By Titian.

Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546) Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
By Titian.


• For the meaning of other Venetian High Renaissance paintings, see: Homepage.

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