“The Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel Analysis

“The Birth of Venus” was painted in 1863 and is currently on display in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France (Rosenbloom, 1989). Nude paintings and similar erotic subjects were popular during this time and as a result, Napoleon III immediately purchased this painting for his own private collection (Rosenbloom, 1989). This painting can be considered historical and erotic as well as much different than the Impressionist style that had dominated the art world during this time in history (Rosenbloom, 1989). The painting measures fifty-one inches by eighty-nine inches so the painting is quite a bit longer than it is tall (Rosenbloom, 1989).

The painting of the nude woman and the five cherubs take up the majority of the painting so that there are very few empty spaces. The painting was done on canvas using oil paints (Rosenbloom, 1989). The primary colors used in the painting are blue and apricot (skin color) and were applied in thin strokes using a fine brush. Additionally, the colors become opaque as they form a very strong image of a nude woman with five cherubs hovering over her body (Rosenbloom, 1989). There were no other materials used in creating this work (Rosenbloom, 1989).

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The painting is simple in that it includes simple images of a nude woman and five cherubs. It also includes a simple representation of the waves in the ocean (Cabanel, 1863). The painting is geometrically ordered because the woman dominates the space at the bottom of the painting equally. In other words there is an equal amount of space between the edge of the painting and her feet as well as the edge of the painting and her outstretched hand.

Similarly, the cherubs hovering over her are situated in such a way so that each one is directly above some part of her body. At the same time, it loses some of its symmetry because only two of the cherubs appear to be looking directly at her while the other three are looking off in other directions. As a result, the painting appears to be mostly symmetrical and spacious (Cabanel, 1863).

There are six individual units in the painting- the nude woman and the five cherubs. They are comprised of solid and clear lines which are curved. The forms of the units are painted in such a way as to convey their reality. In other words, they are painted exactly how women and cherubs look rather than in a different style.

The extremes between the lines that make up these forms are extreme because of the sharp contrast between their skin color and the bright blue of the sky and the dark blue of the water. The colors used are bright enough to give this impression, particularly the color of the skin. As a result, this skin color, as well as the bright blue of the sky, dominates the painting with their contrast of warm and cool colors (Cabanel, 1863). Similarly, the light source inside the painting relies on this contrast to show a strong contrast between colors and lines (Cabanel, 1863).

The emphasis in this painting is on the solid forms of the nude woman and the cherubs flying above her. At the same time, the vastness of the sky and the ocean provide a sense of a void. The painting utilizes a linear form to accurately portray how a nude woman looks while also conveying a sense of fantasy because of her ability to lie on top of the ocean. Therefore, the painting may appear shallow at first glance but actually takes on a deeper meaning as one considers the contrast between the solids and the voids (Cabanel, 1863).

The main interest of this painting is the nude woman and she is placed in the forefront of the painting. She creates no illusion as to her nakedness and actually appears to enjoy the effect that her nudity has on viewers (Cabanel, 1863). The author may have had a purpose for painting this work besides entertainment. However, Napoleon purchased the completed work before the author had a chance to do anything else with it (Rosenbloom, 1989). In this way, the function of the painting (entertainment) may have influenced how Cabanel painted it, particularly given the time period and the increasing popularity of nudity and erotic pieces of art.


  1. Cabanel, Alexandre. (1863). The Birth of Venus. Paris: Musee d’Orsay.
  2. Rosenbloom, Robert. (1989). Paintings in the Musee d’Orsay. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

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