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John Gibson, 1790 - 1866
Venus Verticordia, c.1838 - 39
White marble
M.4-1975

The human figure concealed under a frock coat and trousers is not a fit subject for sculpture.

John Gibson.

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In the figure of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, the sculptor John Gibson found his ideal subject. This work, with its softly modelled face and elegant curves, depicts a paragon of female beauty, a match for the classical statues that the sculptor so ardently admired. And yet Gibson strove to suggest a beauty beyond the physical. In an account of his life, published in 1870, he is quoted as saying, "the expression I endeavoured to give my Venus was that spiritual elevation of character which results from purity and sweetness, combined with an air of unaffected dignity and grace."

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Venus holds an apple, the award bestowed upon her by the shepherd Paris for her beauty. It is a fruit often associated in art with carnal love, but Gibson has called his statue Venus Verticordia - 'the turner of men's hearts.' This is not the flighty, promiscuous Aphrodite of Greek myth, but the virtuous, maternal Venus who oversaw the foundation of Rome. The Romans venerated Venus Verticordia on April 1st as a goddess of chastity, as the poet Ovid recounts in his poem about the Roman calendar, Fasti, book 4, 157-161:

"In the time of our ancestors, Rome had lost its sense of shame, so they consulted the venerable Cumaean Sibyl. She ordered a temple to Venus to be built; and, this done, the goddess took the name Verticordia."

Detail
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At the statue's feet, almost hidden by her drapery, is a tortoise upon which the artist has carved a Latin inscription, OPUS IOANNIS GIBSON ROMAE - "the work of John Gibson, Rome." The animal probably alludes to the goddess' legendary birth from the sea.


Gibson was born in Wales and bought up in Liverpool but lived most of his adult life in Italy, returning to England only twice in 1844 and 1850 to sculpt portraits of Queen Victoria. In Rome he studied under the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova and the Dane, Bertel Thorwaldsen, the two foremost neo-classical sculptors in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. In his time Gibson himself became a leading figure among the expatriot artistic community in Rome.

The sculpture in the Fitzwilliam was commissioned by the wealthy British MP Joseph Neeld and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1838 before going to Neeld's home, Grittleton House in Wiltshire. It represents the artist's first treatment of a theme that he was to work on over the next two decades and which culminated in one of the most striking and controversial sculptural works of the 19th century: the tinted Venus. This celebrated statue, now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, is an exact copy of that in the Fitzwilliam with one important difference: it is coloured.

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When we think of classical sculpture today, we tend to think of it as white. In museums all over the world Greek and Roman marbles stand on pedestals, clean and monochrome. The colour and texture of the raw marble is in itself often considered integral to the beauty of the works. In the mid 19th century the whiteness of Greek marble was especially admired. Parian porcelain, named after the Greek island of Paros where marble was quarried in ancient times, was developed in the 1840s to imitate the appearance of antique statuary. Left [C.7-1969] is a Parian porcelain version of The Veiled Vestal, a popular 19th century work by the Italian born sculptor Raffaelle Monti. It is the purest white.


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In ancient times, however, statues were painted in bright colours, a fact that was only becoming properly appreciated during Gibson's lifetime. Left is a plaster cast from the Cambridge University Museum of Classical Archaeology of a well known statue dating from c.530 BC known as the Peplos Kore. It has been painted to suggest the way that it might originally have looked in the 6th century.


The red lips, golden hair and pale pink flesh of Gibson's tinted Venus caused consternation among visitors to the International Exhibition in London in 1862, where the statue was exhibited alongside other coloured works in a specially constructed 'Greek temple'. The blue eyes seemed to engage the viewer directly, and the statue provoked both extreme embarrassment and intense admiration. Click on the image on the right to tint the Fitzwilliam's statue, and get some idea of the effect. Detail

The first nude statue of the classical goddess of love was made in the 4th century BC by the celebrated Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Today this celebrated cult image is known only through Roman copies, but we can get a distant idea of what it looked like from a 19th century cast of one of these in the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, right. So realistic did the original statue look to contemporary viewers and so intense was its erotic appeal that the story is told of a man who fell in love with it. Hiding in the temple at night, he satisfied his lust upon the image and left a stain upon the marble.

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Gibson had a presumably less physically intimate, but comparably obsessive relationship with his own tinted Venus, and he proved very reluctant to hand over the finished article to the patron who had originally commissioned it, a Mrs. Preston. "It is as difficult for me to part with her," he wrote to her, "as it would be for Mr. Preston to part with you."


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