Titian’s Venus with a Mirror

By Shannon Stockwell

In Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs—which David Ives adapted into his play Venus in Fur—Severin von Kushemski uses as a bookmark Titian’s painting Venus with a Mirror. Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) was born around 1490 in the Italian Alps and moved to Venice when he was just a boy to learn the art of painting. His teacher was Giovanni Bellini, the official painter of Venice. By 1510, Titian had established himself, and after Bellini’s death he took his place as the official painter of the Venetian Republic. He became internationally famous, painting portraits of such members of nobility as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III. A master of many genres of painting, from portraits to nudes to mythological and religious scenes, he died in 1576.

Venus with a Mirror, 1555, by Titian
Venus with a Mirror, completed in 1555, is one of Titian’s more famous paintings. Venus adheres to Renaissance standards of beauty: blond hair, fair skin blushing pink, red lips, and arched brows. In a melding of antiquity and modernity, she appears in the classical modest Venus pose (which Titian based on a Roman statue), but she is sitting on a velvet wrap lined with fur, looking into a mirror while two cupids attend to her. The texture of the painting—the gold embroidery on the fur, the softness of her skin, the iridescence of the cupids’ wings—is evidence of Titian’s mastery of the brush stroke.

Of his extensive body of work, Venus with a Mirror may have been one of Titian’s favorites: the original remained in his studio until his death, more than 20 years after he painted it. Perhaps he simply kept it to use as a model: he and his assistants produced 15 copies and variants. But Venus’s reflection in the mirror engenders an ambiguous relationship with the viewer, and, by extension, the artist. Her reflected gaze appears to be aimed at the viewer. If Titian imagined that Venus was staring at him, it might explain his attachment to the painting—it certainly contributed to Severin’s obsession.

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of Venus in Fur in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to Venus in Fur visit act-sf.org/venus.

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