This year I have been exploring the history of reclining nudes in Western Art, focusing on the power, problems, anxieties, and scandals surrounding female nakedness. Four months have been devoted to researching and reproducing Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany. Thus far, over two hundred hours of research and one hundred hours of painting have been dedicated to this particular project.
Giorgione suffered a premature death which thereby prevented him from finishing his commission of the first painted reclining female nude. Nevertheless, the subject matter survived as a popular motif in Western Art for centuries. When Giorgione died of the plague in his early thirties, Titian completed the artwork so it could hang in the home of Giralomo Marcello to commemorate his wedding to Morosina Pisani, which took place on October 9th 1507. Little is known about Giorgione, and only a few historical clues offer guidance about the painter and his work. I am painting a master copy with questions of intent, technique, and audience in mind. In doing so, I hope to better understand the enduring allure of a naked woman, commissioned by a male patron, and painted by a male artist.
This master copy is not meant to be a convincing forgery of the original as we know it today. Instead, I consider this an exercise in which I can experiment, explore, and bridge gaps in time and documentation. My intention is to recreate the experience of making the painting, including areas that have been obscured by subsequent layers of paint. The surface of the original painting holds ample clues, but in order to imitate the history of its conception I also worked from infrared and UV imaging as well as the X-ray of what lies beneath. My interpretation will attempt to reverse the inevitable patina of time, as well as the damage and repairs caused by numerous restorations and anonymous additions throughout the centuries. By replicating the painting process, I hope to create a direct connection between my hand and the enigmatic hand(s) that created this masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Giorgione was one of the first to experiment with oil on canvas and his techniques were not archival. However, the patina of a poorly executed painting provides clues as to how it was made. In the X-ray there are visible fragments of Cupid at the feet of Venus. The putto was uncovered during a 19th century restoration, but in such terrible condition that it was considered a loss and repainted with another expanse of grass. The intrigue of the Cupid is layered: why was it alone in such terrible condition? Was it painted lean-over-fat, as an afterthought? Was it an impromptu request on behalf of the patron, who was anxious about having an enormous painting of a naked woman without Cupid to identify her as Venus? I have attempted to recreate the missing cupid by referencing the X-ray, the analysis of Hans Posse, a later cupid by Titian, and Giorgione’s portraiture. I also included a bush that was lost in restoration, inspired by the foliage in Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds.
Like all Giorgione historians and admirers, I have been determined to discover some satisfying explanations. However, the only people who really know the answers to my questions are long deceased: Giorgione, Titian, And Marcello. Perhaps this is for the best. After all, the beguiling and poetic nature of Sleeping Venus is part of her allure.