August 2010

Venus Impudique and Pudica

So many prehistoric statuettes are nicknamed “Venus” (the most popular being the “Venus of Willendorf“) that I’ve never given much thought to that title.  I guess that assumed that it was a cute reference to the fact that the statuettes were female. I recently learned, however, that the name “Venus” was first used as a tongue-in-cheek comment.  In 1864, the Marquis Paul de Vibraye wittily described a paleolithic ivory statuette of a female figure (shown right, c. 14,000 BC, from Laugerie-Basse, Vezerey in Dordogne) as a Venus impudique” (“immodest Venus”).  Paul de Vibraye chose the title “Venus impudique” to suggest that the prehistoric statuette makes no attempt to hide her sexuality, in contrast to the popular convention of the “Venus pudica” (modest Venus), which shows the goddess of love attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area.

There are many versions of the “Venus pudica,” most notably the Venus de Medici (shown left, 1st century B.C. copy) and Praxiteles’ Venus of Knidos (original of c.350-340 BC).  If you are interested, you can read more about the Venus pudica convention here, and see even more examples here.

It’s interesting to think about how the nickname “Venus” has affected the perception of prehistoric statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf.  Christopher L. C. E. Whitcombe explains several ways that perception is altered in this short essay, and I wanted to mention two them here:

  • The “Venus” title encourages people to compare prehistoric art to the artistic standards and ideals that were upheld in Greek, Roman, and Renaissance art.  Since these artistic ideals were (and are) so highly valued in Western society, the “Venus” statues are judged by their factors of being “different” from these ideals (instead of being examined on their own terms).
  • The term “Venus” also calls for a comparison between prehistoric and Greek culture.  When such a comparison is made, the prehistoric art becomes more “primal” and sexually unrestrained, since the Greek art suggests self-awareness and “civilized” conventions of propriety.  Obviously, such a comparison is dangerous, since it suggests certain things about prehistoric life which cannot be proven. 

Can you think of more reasons why “Venus” is a problematic nickname to use?  Do you have a favorite “Venus” statuette?


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.