How Botticelli shaped the modern notion of beauty

It happened 500 years ago — and again in the 19th century.

"Has anyone ever told you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?" Robert Downey, Jr.'s Jack Jericho character says to countless women in the 1987 film The Pick-Up Artist. This borrowing art history for the art of seduction picks up on an essential truth: Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli set the modern idea of a pretty face over 500 years ago.

But it wasn't always so, with Botticelli's beauties falling into obscurity until his personal renaissance in the 19th century, when a new generation of artists and tastemakers took a fresh look at his art. From modern fashion to modern art (such as Andy Warhol's take on Botticelli's Birth of Venus shown above), we've all been “feeling" Botticelli's faces without realizing it.

Image: Sandro Botticelli: Venus, 1490. Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders.

Yet, if Botticelli knew his artistic afterlife, he would despair over how the public “Can't feel my face." While fellow Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo reached mythic status, Botticelli failed to reach any audience at all, popular or critical, until the late 19th century. It's amazing that the first critical monograph of Botticelli didn't appear until 1893, especially considering his popularity during the Renaissance. Botticelli's 1486 Birth of Venus brought the classical concept of sexy back to the Renaissance generation that not only found a peaceful coexistence with the heavily religious art of the time, but also achieved cult status with rich patrons.

The Gemäldegalerie–Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany, hosts The Botticelli Renaissance, the new exhibition focused on Botticelli's modern connections, in no small part because of their collection of Botticellis, the largest outside of Botticelli's native Florence, including Venus (shown above), a 1490 outtake of his leading lady from his signature work. Ripped from her mythological context, Venus shows off all her curves and openly simple, yet unforgettable face. But why did the cult of Botticelli's Venus disappear?

Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Daydream, 1880. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Quite simply, times and tastes changed. The classical ideal reborn in Botticelli's paintings fell victim to new ideals of beauty that matched the changing social mores. Other depictions of female beauty, such as the fleshier, heftier Rubenesque, crushed Botticelli's willowy Venus in the popular imagination. Not until the mid-1800s, when the British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, did Botticelli's Venus rise again.

The PRB believed that Botticelli's fellow Renaissance painter Raphael had corrupted painting and led to the Mannerism of succeeding generations that turned art into a mechanical process ever since.

Reaching back into art history before Raphael, the PRB plucked out Botticelli, whose Venus was reincarnated as a succession of femme fatales such as the subject of Rossetti's The Daydream (shown above, from 1880). Rossetti even owned a portrait by Botticelli to better study the master firsthand. Similarly, although Walter Pater's remembered most today for his prose poems dedicated to Da Vinci's Mona Lisa as the “Lady of the Rocks," he also sang the praises of Botticelli's ideal beauties. By the end of the 19th century, right at the dawn of modern art in the 20th century, Botticelli and his Venus were hot again.

Image: Edgar Degas. Venus (after Botticelli), 1859. Peter Schälchli, Zürich.

Even artists who took paths to beauty felt they had to go through Botticelli first. Shades of Jack Jericho, even Edgar Degas sketched Venus (after Botticelli) (shown above) during visits to the Uffizi Gallery in 1858 and 1859. The body Degas eventually became famous for took a different shape, but here we can see how he was fascinated by Botticelli before moving on to more Impressionist depictions, which, in turn, set the stage for every modern art movement that followed — either in following or turning away from that ideal.

Image: Woman's Evening Dress. Designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, Artist/Maker: French (born Italy), 1890 - 1973. D

The 20th century ideal of female beauty — face and body — thus had 16th century origins. But how to clothe that body? French designer Elsa Schiaparelli tapped into her inner Botticelli in designing a woman's evening dress (shown above) for the fall 1938 season. As all of Europe descended into the Second World War, Schiaparelli matched that dark mood with a black crêpe silhouette no Rubensque beauty could squeeze into. Couture embroiderer François Lesage made the Botticelli connection clearer by adding semi-detached leaves and pink flowers — the motif of Botticelli's famous Primavera and other springtime portraits — to suggest the gowns worn by his Earth-bound goddesses.

Image: Tomoko Nagao. Botticelli — The Birth of Venus with Baci, Esselunga, Barilla, PSP and EasyJet, 2012. © Tomoko Nagao.

From Schiaparelli's throwback fashion sense it's a small step to the present-day commodification of Botticelli's idea of beauty. Warhol's Details of Renaissance Paintings (Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1482) (top of post, from 1984) illustrates how the classically timeless ideal of beauty Botticelli revived now finds itself cropped and digested for mass marketing, an eternal grace edited down to 15 minutes of fleeting, disposable fame.

Following in Warhol's wake, Japanese artist Tomoko Nagao's digital print Botticelli — The Birth of Venus with Baci, Esselunga, Barilla, PSP and EasyJet (shown above, from 2012) makes the commodification comically explicit while simultaneously displaying the distance between Botticelli's painterly craft and the pernicious digital ease of modern advertising. Nagao juxtaposes her digital Venus — female beauty chopped down to the simplest of lines — with a sky full of EasyJet advertisements above, a sea full of Barilla pasta ads below, and a video game controller replacing the classic seashell.

The Botticelli Renaissance almost effortlessly spans a half millennium like Venus herself riding the surf to show how our concept of beauty owes much to Botticelli, but loses much in time's translation. If we can't “feel" Botticelli's ideal face (and body) anymore, we only have ourselves to blame.


[Many thanks to the Gemäldegalerie–Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany, for providing me with the images above and other press materials related to the exhibition The Botticelli Renaissance, which runs through January 24, 2016.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.