Innocents- A nod
Updated: Nov 28
Reflections on Twain and Titian - Venus and Olympia- Brian Keeler
When Twain and Titian interact there are interesting fireworks- and nary shall the (twain) meet as they are separted by several hundred years and several fathoms of aesthetics. The title of this essay is indeed a take or a nod to to Twain's travels in Europe in 1867 on a former Civil War vessel, The USS Quaker City. We can imagine this journey to the Holy Land and European sites as a 19th century version of one of today's cultural cruises. The title of Twain's book was Innocents Abroad and it was followed years later by another approach to the subject called, A Tramp Abroad. The subtitle of Twain's book is The New Pilgrim's Progress. This is in turn a recognition of the allegorical work, The Pilgrim's Progress by the 17th century British author, John Bunyan. The subititle underscores the mission of the tour, which was in part to visit Holy sites in the near east and those in Italy and elsewhere.
Above- Titian's Venus of Urbino- part of the Uffizi Gallery collection.
The wry and witty comments and observations of Twain's about traveling in Italy caught my attention in a book, Florence Stories, picked up in Florence this spring at the Medici Chapel bookstore. This account of Twain's is a spoof on tourism of the time and the hucksters that sold the Reniasssance. Twain purpsoely uses a malaprop and asks, who is this Rain-ah-sance anyway? These Philistine-like wisecracks cause us to wonder at how serious he really is later on. Anyone who has been to Italy can relate and laugh along with Twain. Up to a point that is. He goes on a vehement tirade about the famous reclinning nude (shown above) by Titian, titled, Venus of Urbino. This large canvas is a beauty in so many ways. I've paused in front of the original many times in the Uffizi Gallery. The softness of the modeling is beyond compare. The delicacy of rendering and the beautiful simplicity of form and composition are remarkable. The simplified values and graphic clarity have many corrolaries to the painting by Manet, The Olympia, mentioned later. Both show the reclinning nude portrayed with no discernable light direction, as if a window were right in front of her. The modeling of the white sheet is similar too and the black background in each painting creates a clarity. Both conceptions of these works could be described as a mid-value form (the model) on white, which in turn has a black background.
Twain's ire catches us by surprise as he pulls no punches in venting his bile. Needless to say, the whole affair of his poison pen seems misplaced by today's standards. It even seems circumspect by the mores of the 19th century to certain extent as well. When we think of his American literary contemporary, Walt Whitman, who was known in some circles as the poet of the body- so we wonder what Twain's puritanical streak was all about. Did he learn nothing from Whitman's trail blazing? Even Twain's other contemporary, the painter Thomas Eakins had a lot to express about the human body in frank and authentic pictorial terms- through his canvases of the nude.
Let's cut to the chase and hear what Twain had to say.
"You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little
gallery that exists in the world--the Tribune--and there,
against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf,
you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest,
the obscenest picture the world possesses--Titian's Venus.
It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed--no,
it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I
ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine
howl--but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat
over that wants to--and there she has a right to lie,
for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges.
I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw
young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged,
infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest.
How I should like to describe her--just to see what a holy
indignation I could stir up in the world--just to hear
the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my
grossness and coarseness, and all that."
Whoa! We could understandably gasp at how heavy-handed Twain comes down on this classic nude- an epitomy of the Renaissance and the new humanism prevalent of the era. We have to wonder if Twain is really serious or if he's merely pullling our leg with false bravado in the service of appealing to some of his readers. Indeed, he later refers to another painting by Titian that I'd not heard of before, a depiction of Moses. And lo and behold, there is no such painting by Titian. Twain used it to show that Titian could depict an animated visage of an infant, Moses, unlike the wooden expressionless versions of the Christ child we know from medieval paintings- perhaps like those of Giotto or Cimabue or earlier ones. Twain has a point here, as all of these Madonnas with infants depict flat visages with no humanity and little variation for centuries. So we relate to Twain's observations in many cases.
In the passage of Twain's above there is an alarming correspondence to the unfortunate wrath directed toward another painting of a Venus. This one, the nude of Venus with a mirror painted by Velazquez, the 17th century Spanish painter. His painting in the NGA in London was slashed with a knife by an irate woman. She said that she did not like the way men were looking lustfully at the painting. So here we have Twain, in the same camp more or less. He does not like the aversion of young girls or and appeal of the painting to old men.
Above- Manet's Olympia- now in a major show at the Metropolitian Musuem of Art In New York. The pose and pictorial conception is very similar to Titian's- we could consider it an homage from the 19th century painter to his Venetian counterpart of the 16th century.
This painting of Titian's has current relevance as it a direct antecedent of the painting now in the Metropolitan Musuem in NYC. I am referring to the large oil by Manet, titled Olympia, which is one of the centerpieces of the current show pairing Manet and Degas. The pose of Olympia is very similar, her left hand is also positioned like that of the Titian nude- except there is not a suggestion of self-pleasuring. Both are completely nude women and both courtesans. One frank and coquetishly impudent, the other demure and suggestive. Both are in interiors. The Manet has the black woman attendant included which brings in the racial context. The attendant is bringing in a bouquet of flowers - presumably from a suitor. The Manet version caused outrage and scandal when it was shown for the first time and the Titian we know not how it was received. Twain has something to say about the Titian's possible reception-mentioned later.
I am recalling a another reference to Titian and the nude in general. Titian was used in a farcical skit on Saturday Night Live a few decades ago when Belucci and crew lampooned his name by pronouncing it Tit-i-an and brought up his painting of the Urbino lady. They donned a kind of high school prankster attitude- or locker room banter and rather puerile at that- but it got some laughs. Hmm, well high art has long been fodder for wags and we can enjoy it too.
Above- The author's self portrait, painting the nude in Umbria near Todi. How would Twain's prose reflect on today's art of the figure?
Here is some more of Twain on the nude-
"There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure
thought--I am well aware of that. I am not railing
at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that
Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort.
Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it
was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong.
In truth, it is too strong for any place but a public
Art Gallery. Titian has two Venuses in the Tribune;
persons who have seen them will easily remember which one I am
In every gallery in Europe there are hideous pictures
of blood, carnage, oozing brains, putrefaction--pictures
portraying intolerable suffering--pictures alive
with every conceivable horror, wrought out in dreadful
detail--and similar pictures are being put on the canvas
every day and publicly exhibited--without a growl from
anybody--for they are innocent, they are inoffensive,
being works of art. But suppose a literary artist ventured
to go into a painstaking and elaborate description
of one of these grisly things--the critics would skin
him alive. Well, let it go, it cannot be helped;
Art retains her privileges, Literature has lost hers.
Somebody else may cipher out the whys and the wherefores
and the consistencies of it--I haven't got time. "
Ok, once again we can relate to Twain's objections somewhat. Those of us who have traversed the hills of Urbino and Umbria or the hallowed churches of Rome and museums throughout including the Vatican itself will have had our share religious propaganda. Many of the canvases are of the suffering and martyrdom of saints at the hands of intolerant pagans who were trying ot excise the converts to the new religion. We know now of course that the horrors of the inquisition and so much more that came later, sort of equaled out the inflictions and showed the Christians to be no less kind to their supposed oppressors or those that didn't toe the party line.
Above- In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence several years ago with students. We are admiring a canvas by the 17th century Dutch artist, Gerrit Von Honthorst. We also paused to view the Titian nude mentioned here. No one seemed to object to the pose of the nude in that work- which Twain found so offensive.
It is fun to hear of Twain's laments at various aspects of visiting Florence and other areas of Italy. He could have been a fun traveling companion. Yet, I think we could do better. For example, if I had my druthers, I would choose to ride in a train with Bernard Berenson, the well known Harvard art connoisseur of the late 19th century and early 20th. Or even to tag along with his friend, Isaballa Stewart Gardner as they visited obscure churches in the search for a canvas or panel by Sasseti, Piero Della Francesca, Duccio and yes, Titian. One of Titian's monumental canvases, the Europa, is in the Gardner Museum in Boston today. Instead of getting one's nose out of joint and feigning puritanical sensibilities- we could imagine Berenson and Gardner really appreciating the art for art sake and enjoying the unbridled hedonism or the genuine spirituality of others.
Twain has a memorable passage about getting lost one night while walking alone late at night in Florence and getting hopelessly lost. He encounters some guards at one of the gates, maybe Porta Prato and he is not received well. He eventually finds his hotel after hours of wandering. I too had similar experience in Venice on my first trip there. I kept coming back to the same little piazza after many forays into the serpentine "La Serenissima."
Twain's book is incredibly well illustrated. I wonder how he directed such competent renderings of the intimate scenes and the grandiose vistas like the Rock of Gibraltar or quaint views of Lake Como. Maybe he had an artist in his entourage. The above illustration shows the artist's work, whose skill and draftsmanship is equal to that of Winslow Homer's drawings and engravings done for American Magazines during the Civil War. The illustrator, turns out to be an award winning artist of the day, James Albon. He portrayed the travel episodes with a sensibility equal to that of Twain- with eagle-eyed and sardonic observations of his fellow Americans and those met along the way.
In reference to the Moses painting mentioned earlier, here is Twain on this aspect-
Titian's Venus defiles and disgraces the Tribune, there is
no softening that fact, but his "Moses" glorifies it.
The simple truthfulness of its noble work wins the heart
and the applause of every visitor, be he learned or ignorant.
After wearying one's self with the acres of stuffy,
sappy, expressionless babies that populate the canvases
of the Old Masters of Italy, it is refreshing to stand
before this peerless child and feel that thrill which tells
you you are at last in the presence of the real thing.
Well, in the end we will find our own way and enjoyment of literature and art. Still we find much of Twain's pithy commentary refreshing and at least candid- maybe like the honest reportage we need and welcome from the likes of a Rick Steves and other travel guides. Apparently the other travel guides of the era were full of glowing glosses with no real warnings of possible pit falls. By contrast, we find connections to the honesty and directness of Whitman's poetry that remains relevant and poignant over the many decades. We also find the truth and beauty as well as the commonality and differences of Renaissance paintings. And we find timeless truths in Twains expression of the racial realities of antebellum America in his novels like Huckleberry Finn. Let us not judge the entire body of work on misguided forays. Take for example Degas, mentioned above. He is known to have become a raging antisemite in his later years, which is indeed lamentable. Still we glow in his masterpieces gathered now at the Metropolitan museum and elsewhere.
I will end on a note of levity in regards to Mark Twain. When his integrity was questioned, and he was accused of accepting tainted money, because one of his benefactors was the head of Standard Oil he had a good rejoinder. Yes, twain is reported have said, the money is twice tainted, taint yours and taint mine.
Above- An oil painting of the nude by the author- This 36" x 40" oil on linen is titled "The New Green Floor."