Rebirth of Venus

Two new shows rescue the pioneer of Renaissance classicism and the Pre-Raphaelite hero from cliché

Art
Art for art’s sake: “The Virgin and Child with Two Angels” (c.1490) by Sandro Botticelli (image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Kunste Wien)

Sandro Botticelli (c.1445-1510) has one of the purest bloodlines of all Renaissance artists. He was born in Florence and worked there almost all his life — apart from a visit to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel and one to Hungary. He was at the centre of the republic’s artistic community during its most influential period. He trained as an artist under one major painter, Filippo Lippi, and later worked with numerous others, including Ghirlandaio and Raphael’s master Perugino. His patrons included the Medici and Pope Sixtus IV and he was profoundly influenced by Savonarola.
By the end of his life, however, Michelangelo’s sculptural grandeur, Leonardo’s subtleties and Raphael’s perfection had left him looking a relic of the past. Vasari claimed that Savonarola’s influence “led him to abandon painting” (legend has it too that he burned some of his own paintings on the “Bonfire of the Vanities”) and while this was untrue his fortunes certainly declined. “He earned much,” said Vasari, “but wasted everything through negligence and lack of management.” His poverty was matched by declining health and his final years found him “old and useless, unable to stand upright and moving about with the aid of crutches”.
Posthumously he fared little better. His reputation sank rapidly and he remained virtually unknown until the 19th century, when art historians interested in Raphael discovered him as a predecessor. The key figure in Botticelli’s revival was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who bought his Portrait of a Lady (Smeralda Bandinelli) — now in the Victora & Albert Museum — for £20 and used it as a model for his own work. What attracted Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite peers such as Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and the theorist Walter Pater were the art-for-art’s-sake qualities in Botticelli’s paintings. They saw in his clear outlines, allusive and poetic classicism, limpid colour and refined draughtsmanship a fellow aesthete avant la lettre.
Pater astutely noted that Botticelli’s women — from his portraits and Madonnas to Venus emerging from the waves and the dancing graces of Primavera — were “in a certain sense like angels, but with a sense of displacement or loss about them — the wistfulness of exiles”. This wistfulness, the “shadow” on his paintings, matched perfectly the Victorian fad for “dreams of fair women” with its overtones of wanness and melancholy.
Rossetti and Burne-Jones are two of the artists inspired by Botticelli who are featured in the V&A’s Botticelli Reimagined (March 5-July 3); others include Magritte, Warhol, Degas, and the photographers Cindy Sherman and David LaChapelle. There are also 50 works by Botticelli himself, in Bernard Berenson’s words “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had”.
However, what most of his pasticheurs pick up on, certainly the contemporary ones, is not the neo-platonic themes of the Primavera (c.1482) or The Birth of Venus (c.1485) but Botticelli as cliché. Admittedly, exactly what those two paintings in particular are about remains uncertain but Warhol, for example, turned Venus into a multi-version silkscreen just as he did any other celebrity, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jackie Onassis. David LaChapelle reworks the painting as an eroticised festival of camp, while in Untitled #225 Cindy Sherman herself takes the role of Botticelli’s platonic mistress Simonetta Vespucci, the supposed model for Venus and the woman at whose feet he asked to be buried in the church of Ognissanti in Florence.
These artists play, with a knowing air, on Botticelli’s fame and the familiarity of his work. Rossetti and the Victorians didn’t have that luxury, or self-indulgence, and so adopted his mood. They looked hard at the works and if the meaning of his classical paintings was elusive their atmosphere was not. The goddess of spring of Primavera reappears in their work in all her floral sweetness but without her distracting attendants. They took too the way Botticelli infused his works with the mood of a dream and they recognised his pioneering spirit as the first Renaissance painter to treat classical subjects on the same scale and with the same seriousness usually given to religious works.
That Botticelli was not a mere decorative lightweight is reinforced by Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection at the Courtauld Gallery (until May 15), an exhibition that includes 30 of the 92 surviving drawings Botticelli made to illustrate a printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An anonymous author, writing around 1540, said that Botticelli “painted and illustrated a Dante on sheepskin for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici which was held to be something marvellous”. Lorenzo was the owner of both The Birth of Venus and Primavera and the Dante drawings are indeed something marvellous — large-scale, horizontal in format and both inventive and faithful to the text. If it was Dante Gabriel Rossetti who helped resurrect Botticelli, it was, appropriately, Botticelli who helped fuel the 15th-century revival of interest in Dante Alighieri.
The legacy of another hugely influential artist is the topic of the National Gallery’s new exhibition Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (until May 22). Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Whistler, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso were just some of the painters who acknowledged their debt. As Cézanne commented, “We all paint in Delacroix’s language.”
The language they learned was not just one of fluid handling and colour harmonies but of his disdain for the official art world. While the exhibition pitches Delacroix (1798-1863) as a prototypical modern artist, he saw himself as an upholder of tradition. “I am a pure classicist,” he avowed and he was indeed the last major 19th-century painter to tackle art’s great themes — religion and mythology. If the younger generation couldn’t or wouldn’t follow him there they had less trouble with his dictum that “the first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.”