The Exploitation of Classicism: A visual depiction of male dominance © David Frescas 2010


The belief that science, scholarship and art had flourished in the classical period convinced the fifteenth-century Italians to adopt the ancient Greek culture as the reference point of excellence. The artists of the Italian Renaissance, in attempts to establish a visual ancestral connection to the classical period, incorporated Greek styles of sculpture and architecture into their own works. These references to Greek styles dictated the European art world, especially the motif of idealizing the human body. Consequently, idealized representations of the human body survived well into nineteenth-century Europe.

Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, an idealized nude figure, is a competent example of this larger European trend. The Birth of Venus, like its many predecessors, strives to demonstrate perfection through an idealized and valorized representation of the genre. Rejecting this idealization of the European vision, Gustave Courbet created a more natural female figure in his Woman with a Parrot. Though his work, Courbet critiques the popular trend of idealizing the human body in European painting, suggesting a possible exploitation of Greek culture for the entertainment of a male audience. Courbet deconstructs the validity of classicism found in European paintings, like Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, through the manipulation and distortion of a Venus-like figure in Woman with a Parrot.

Mythological legends from ancient Greek culture provided a source of themes for European artists to visually regenerate. Alexandre Cabanel utilized the Greek legend of Aphrodite to recreate The Birth of Venus, depicting the mystery through which divine beauty entered the world. Cabanel presents an association between divine beauty and the tangible human body, choosing to pose the Venus figure as a nude female figure. Positioned to expose full frontal nudity, the exquisite naked body of the goddess encapsulates the idea behind the mythological legend of beauty. Additionally, Cabanel emphasizes the figure’s correlation to the mythological legend by surrounding the goddess with childlike putti figures, announcing her birth to the world. Since European societies disregarded and ignored sexual implications when viewing paintings with Greek figures, the relationship between Greek classicism and art vindicated the blatant use of nudity in portraying women. In this way, a so-called justification exists for Cabanel’s motive in painting the goddess nude.

Opposing this prevailing European viewpoint, Gustave Courbet rejects the practice of justifying nudity in art through association with Greek mythology. Courbet in Woman with a Parrot constructs a deceptive, iconoclastic scenario that undermines any attempt to eulogize and de-sexualize nudity. For example, Courbet’s juxtaposition of a nude woman and a bird eludes the viewer’s attempt to epitomize the painting as a classical standard. Moreover, Courbet manipulates the Greek standard of beauty by suggesting a subversive sexual undertone. He teases the viewer’s curiosity by placing clothing at the foot of the bed, suggesting the impression of a possible sexual partner. The contrary nature of the painting fueled discussion in the European art community. Appalled at the idea of Courbet’s usurpation of classical traditions, critics reacted uncomfortably to the painting’s capacity to incite sexual pleasure in its male viewers. In this way, Courbet suggests that paintings alluding to Greek mythology, such as Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, may not purposely celebrate Greek classical culture. Instead, Courbet proposes that the role of nudity in paintings may be intended for pure, hedonistic satisfaction of a male audience.

In continuance with Greek themes, Cabanel in his The Birth of Venus constructs the female figure according to idealistic standards practiced during classical Greece. The idealization of the human body originated in classical Greece as a reflection of a society in which elite males paraded though the city of Athens in the nude. Greek artists concentrated on idealizing the human body in sculpture through simplicity, removing the natural imperfections found in the human body. Adapting the practices of Greek sculptors, Cabanel concentrates on idealizing Venus by simplifying the contours of her body. Paralleling the unwavering drift of the ocean waves, the figure’s body effortlessly rises and falls from left to right, intensifying her flawless curves. Cabanel continues to idealize the goddess by displaying her taintless skin, which is accomplished by the absence of shadow on her ivory colored flesh. In essence, the ivory tinged body captures the appearance of a classical Greek sculpture, imitating a polished marble appearance.

Discarding the idealized version of the female figure, Courbet distorts the woman in Woman with a Parrot. Unlike Cabanel, Courbet parallels the figure along no particular streamlined axis, allowing regions of the body to move naturally. To further stress the misalignment of symmetry, Courbet augments the body to create a slightly overweight figure. Utilizing shadow, the artist accentuates the massive flesh found on the woman’s limbs and abdominal area, drawing attention to the deviation of proportion in the body. In addition to accentuating her weight, Courbet uses shadow to taint the color of skin, giving the impression of earthy naturalness. Courbet criticizes the European claim that the idealization of the nude figure pays homage to classical Greek culture. European viewer’s tendency to see the nude figure as a template of classical art indicates the viewer’s bias for a merely aesthetically pleasing nude body. Consequently, Courbet suggests an artistic exploitation of Greek classicism solely for the exhibition of an idealized figure.

Articulating his visual critique on this perversion of classicism, Courbet expresses the ironic implications of portraying the nude. In Woman with a Parrot, Courbet positions the female figure to create an ‘active’ character. Through this ‘active’ stance, Courbet gives the sense of uncontrived movement. The woman casually turns her body away from the viewer to attend to a bird perched on her fingers. In this way, the woman ingenuously participates in nature. Unwarily, she becomes a common part of nature rather than a hallowed part. The woman, liberated to move independent of the viewer’s wishes, becomes empowered and singular.

In contrast, Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus illustrates the female figure in the ‘passive’ state. Cabanel seems to deliberately pose the figure in order to create the ‘passive’ state, adjusting her perfectly for the sexual gratification of the viewer. Cabanel reveals full frontal nudity, which allows the viewer complete visual access and mastery to the exposed, prone goddess. Disregarding the goddess’ control, the male viewer dominates her, dictating her and subjecting her to his imagination.

The European art community renounced the portrayal of an ‘active’ character as salacious and disreputable because it insinuates a perverse female persona. In comparison, a connotation of innocence is ascribed to Cabanel’s Venus because of her submissive stance. In his work, Courbet argues against the validity of the correlation between ‘passivity’ and innocence, implying that both women are equally sexualized since both women appear nude. In Courbet’s painting, the traditional male viewer loses his supremacy and preeminence over the woman because she is unresponsive and indifferent to him. Ignoring the viewer through her nonchalant, detached carriage, the female figure in Woman with a Parrot becomes a symbol of feminine ascendancy and power. Given that men dominated the social hierarchy, Woman with a Parrot is actually a dissolution of power relations between the viewer and the female figure— not because of the so-called sexual nature of the nude woman, but because Courbet disengages the female from conventional and trite gender constraints.

The theme of gender relations continues to be explored in the paintings of both Cabanel and Courbet through the presence or absence of fertility symbolism. In The Birth of Venus, ideas of fertility superfluously emphasize the female essence of the goddess, binding and limiting the perception of her as a woman. Firstly, since the goddess is surrounded by childlike putti figures, which resemble newborn children, Cabanel expresses the idea of female fruitfulness and potency. Since a woman must be fertile to have children, the childlike putti figures mark a definite positive association between fertility and femininity. Secondly, Cabanel places Venus atop an undulating ocean. The varied and manifold tides of the water parallel the rhythmic, rolling flux of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Moreover, the putti figures carry instrumental conch shells that they play to announce the birth of the goddess. Cabanel constructs the exterior shape of the shells to resemble the folds of the vagina. And finally, the obvious correlation between fertility and creation exists in the name of the painting: The Birth of Venus. She symbolizes fertility because she too is a product of nature’s dynamic forces of creation in that the sea nurtures her and will eventually awaken from the sea. Birth implies fertilization, conception, transformation, and growth. By undergoing a culminating birthing process, Venus’ birth hints at a proliferation of life. Through procreation and birth, life is celebrated. Intertwining the notion of birth and water, Cabanal creates notion of sensual, primitive pre-consciousness. Because Venus has not yet awakened from her birth, she still embodies the primal and erotic energy of fertility and creation.

Courbet excludes all fertility associations in his rendition of the Venus figure. Instead of placing the female figure in a paradisal, luminous setting, Courbet sets the painting’s character in the middle of a covert, dark forest. By placing her in a clandestine, private setting, the figure is placed physically closer to the un-idealized natural world. Not only does the artist honor her realistic femininity, but he also recognizes her existence as a creature of the earth; she is neither a goddess nor a mythological symbol of femininity. In contrast to the celestial, heavenly putti figures used by Cabanel, Courbet places an exotic bird as her personal consort, expressing her uniqueness and individuality.

In Woman with a Parrot, Courbet deconstructs the validity of classicism found in paintings. Through the techniques in his painting, Courbet offers two ascending critiques on the portrayal of the female nude: First, the sexualized perspective—providing visual representations of a un-goddess like nude women. Second, a sexist perspective—visually depicting a woman who transcends male dominion through her individuality. The European’s erroneous association of nude paintings to classical Greek art is merely a subterfuge. By usurping the classical ideal of a nude woman and manipulating the conventions of the Greek Venus figure in Woman with Parrot, Courbet shows how the European male viewer self-deceivingly uses classical allusions to camouflage the sexualized exhibition of the nude women.

Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus visually quantifies the gender hierarchy that had existed prior to and through the nineteenth century. Through the depiction of a nude woman, the idealization of the human body, and the incessant allusions to fertility, Cabanel misrepresents the characteristics that epitomize the female gender. These misrepresentations of natural feminine characteristics materialize the female gender, making the female into a controllable object for the authoritative male.