The Birth of Venus. Oil on canvas, 52 x 21 inches (132.1 x 53.4 cm). Collection of the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, registration no. 19. Click on image to enlarge it.
tanhope painted these three closely related compositions featuring a standing naked female but changing their backgrounds and accessories and assigning them different titles – The Birth of Venus, Venus Rising from the Sea and Flora. He appears to have used the same female figure study for all three paintings. Venus was the goddess of Love while Flora was the goddess of Spring. In the version The Birth of Venus at the Hugh Lane Gallery the goddess is portrayed emerging naked from a large inverted seashell, which is filled with earth covered in grass, small wild flowers and roses. She steps with her right foot onto a circular rock. She clasps her arms around her breasts while her long golden brown hair covers her genital area in order to preserve her modesty. A group of red-winged cherubs with female faces look over the edge of the seashell. In the background is a rough cliff face that abuts a turquoise coloured sea in the middle distance. In Venus Rising from the Sea the goddess is stepping onto the shore with her right foot from the back of a blue dolphin. Her pose is identical to that in The Birth of Venus but the fall of her hair is treated differently as is the decorative garland of roses around her midsection. Further dolphins are seen in the sea in the midground rather than cherubs. The rocky cliff face in the background is similar but not identical to the one in The Birth of Venus and an expanse of sea and sky can be glimpsed to the left. In the third version entitled Flora the model is again in the same pose, but in this case she is completely naked, and neither her hair nor a girdle of flowers covers her groin area. This time the goddess steps from a bank of flowers with her right foot onto a circular rock. The same group of young female cherubs peer from behind the trunks of rose bushes. Consistent with the title the midground is almost entirely taken up by rose bushes although the sea can just be glimpsed in the background through the branches. Stanhope likely painted this feature from the rose bushes in his garden at his villa in Bellosguardo.
Left: Venus. 1885. Tempera on panel. 22 x 12 inches (56 x 30.5) cm. Private collection. Right: Flora. 1885. Oil on panel, 50 ¾ x 20 ¾inches (128.7 x 52.7 cm). Private collection.
All three paintings once again owe much to the work of Sandro Botticelli, particularly his Birth of Venus which inspired the pose, the scallop shell in The Birth of Venus, and the flowing hair of the goddess that she draws around her. The background of Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur inspired the similar rocky coastline of the bay in The Birth of Venus and Venus Rising from the Sea. A figure of Flora scattering flowers is prominent in Botticelli’s Primavera but here she is portrayed clothed. The foreground of flowers in Flora is similar to that found in Primavera.
The subjects of Stanhope’s paintings were also popular with other artists within the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Walter Crane’s The Renascence of Venus, which was also highly influenced by Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. Paintings of Flora are known by Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn De Morgan, F. W. Burton, J. W. Waterhouse, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The inclusion of cherubs in the background was also a device frequently used by Pre-Raphaelite painters. Examples can be found in the work of D. G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Arthur Hughes, especially in the background of depictions of The Nativity.
Left: The Renaissance of Venus. by Walter Crane. 1877. Oil and tempera on canvas, 138.4 x 184.1 cm (9.45 x 13.19 inches. Tate Britain. NO2920. Middle: Flora Evelyn de Morgan. Oil on canvas. © The de Morgan Foundation. Right: Venus Rising from the Sea by Edward Burne-Jones. 1870. Oil on canvas? [Click on images to enlarge them.]
When one of the versions of Venus was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885 the critic of The Academy accorded it but faint praise: “Mr. Spencer Stanhope also seems more successful than usual in rendering his vision. His ‘Birth of Venus’ (130) is but a feeble rendering of its subject; but it is consistently pretty and rosy throughout” (371).
“Fine Art. Grosvenor Gallery.” The Academy 27 (May 23, 1885): 371.
Last modified 7 May 2022