While the Philadelphia Museum of Art may not house some of the more famous artwork from the Baroque period, their acquisition of Poussin’s “Birth of Venus” was nothing short of a savvy purchase. Hungry for Western currency, the painting was sold by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 1930 under the Soviet Regime to the PMA. In their possession is arguably one of the most hotly debated works from that era. Also aptly named “The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite” this painting not only highlights Poussin’s trademark ability to allow for an open interpretation of his depictions but also encourages an allegorical analysis of the many elements present in his composition.
The very ambiguities of this painting, and his others, emphasizes Poussin’s capacity to express the concepts or overall ideas of things and events themselves while not concentrating on the minutia while still allowing for translation. Before one can approach an iconological interpretation of Poussin’s work, one must also understand his early training, influences and subsequent ideology to grasp his use of deep symbolism and line. In his early career working with Italian poet Giambattista Marino, Nicolas Poussin was commissioned to illustrate Ovidian poetry subsequently establishing the ideals of Metamorphoses – themes and motifs prominent in “The Birth of Venus”. This was also important in developing his ability to intimately tie literature to painting. Poussin grew to heavily favor Disegno over Colore, or design over color which can be seen in all of his works. His ideology proposed that design, form and line were more important than the colors and décor of the traditional Baroque French art of the time. This very dogma split French Renaissance Art 200 years after his death in which factions of his study (Poussinistes) proposed that drawing was superior to color (Rubénistes). Poussin’s holistic and classical approach was his attempt to reach the highest aim of painting: the representation of the magnificent. He intended to only focus on great events, battles and divine matters. In this way, Poussin’s take on Roman Classicism eventually contributed to the aesthetic style of Grand Matter.
His method of Ideal or Heroic Landscape, which drew upon the perspectives of rhetoric, utopianism, drama and metaphysics allowed him to coherently arrange elements as seen in the “Birth of Venus”. The very nature and composition of Poussin’s works highlights the realm of Baroque Classicism in which the arrangement of the physical is paramount to reflecting the rationality of an ideal and eternal world. His fascination with deity and mythology sans Christianity also can be seen in his rejection of Neoplatonism and his use of Epicurean interpretation. Indeed, Poussin was not the first artist to depict Venus physica (terrestrial Venus). Nearly a century and a half prior to Poussin’s painting, Italian painter Sandro Boticelli composed a similar painting also named “The Birth of Venus” (1485). While there are some similarities to Boticelli’s painting, Poussin’s provides a more Epicurean interpretation rather than a Neoplatonistic one. In addition, 20 years after Boticelli’s work, another Italian painter created another piece of art that depicts Venus in a manner more similar to Poussin’s (“The Triumph of Galatea”).
The Birth of Venus by Boticelli (1485)
The Triumph of Galatea by Raphael (1514)
Both of these paintings, while somewhat similar, only reinforce some of the symbolic clues left by Poussin in his own depiction:
The Birth of Venus or The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite by Poussin (1635) As we gaze over Poussin’s work of art we notice a great many things. First and foremost, as we know of his attention to placement, the centermost and brightest subject is of a nude female deity. A time-frozen, windswept pink shroud is cast upon her naked body while she rides on top of dolphins harnessed by her and the cupid-like boy under her. Poussin’s placement of Her is crucial because it highlights Her very significance in the scene; she is centered as her male counterpart is seemingly subordinate and pictorially off to the side. Around her are Tritons and Nerreds and above are cupid-like babies adorning her with flowers. The inspiration for the placement and formation of the goddess can be seen by the earlier paintings of Boticelli and Raphael. In each painting the deity in the center is shielded by a billowing cloth of pink/red. In addition, Poussin chose to have the woman deity ride in on dolphins similar to that of Raphael’s composition.
Because there are two official names for this painting, one thing must be addressed before moving on, “Is this a depiction of the birth of Venus or the triumph of Amphitrite?”. Amphitrite is the Greek sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon while Venus is the Roman goddess of love, two different characters that share no parallels. There is some interesting evidence to support that the painting is indeed Venus’ birth. In both The Triumph of Galatea and The Birth of Venus, Venus is not only riding on dolphins but also has her son Cupid below her also harnessing the sea beasts. Furthermore in Boticelli’s painting and in Poussin’s, the woman deity is being adorned with myrtle, the flower most commonly associated with Venus, goddess of love – myrtle too is a symbol of love. Additionally, Poussin employs his knowledge of Apulerius in Metamorphoses or “The Golden Ass” of which the story describes Venus as being accompanied by a band of fellow beings singing and blowing horns.
The comparison between the Apulerius’ text and Poussin’s painting are fascinating, there are a band of fellow beings surrounding Venus in the form of Tritons and Nerreds, two of which are blowing horns. In Metamorphoses, Apulerius merely depicts the triumph of a Venus while Poussin paints her genesis. Seen in the warm clouds above, riding on a chariot in the sky by six doves is the infant form of Venus. On her journey to creation she encounters transformation which is signified by the dark storm clouds above. This is painted to contrast the entire tone of the painting so markedly that it bears a special meaning. Poussin again employs his usage of literary interpretation in the form of Lucretius’ didactic poem De rerum natura or “On the Nature of Things”. In this poem’s prologue, there lies a single significant line: “Te dea, te fugiunt venti, Te nubile caeli Adventumque tuum…”. This translates to “Thee, goddess flee you, the wind, cloudy skies, and your arrival.”  Which means that the winds and clouds part in anticipation of a goddess, shown in the picture. In Poussin’s depiction, he portrays Venus as being propelled by the winds just as in Boticelli’s work.
These pieces of literary and visual evidence provide basis that the central female deity in Poussin’s painting is in fact Roman goddess Venus. To the left of Venus is a male deity riding on hippocamps or seahorses, it is not easily discernible however if he is to be depicted as Neptune the Roman god of freshwater and sea or Poseidon, Greek god of the ocean. Both counterparts are known as god of the horses and horse tamer respectively and each wields a trident. In regards to the location of the painting, Poussin uses the method of Ideal Landscape in which he represents the locale but not exactly. It was important that the setting did not exactly reflect or imitate a real place in its entirety but to highlight the divinity, magnificence and importance of the event or subject in an effort to not distract the audience. However, Poussin did provide a small piece of evidence in the form of a spilling vase at the base of the painting. This could symbolize a river near a mountainous island in the Mediterranean. Evidence has shown that the archaeological site of Paphos (a mountainous island of Cyprus) is near the mouth of the Bocarus River which could very well be the paintings’ setting .
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Moore, Brooks. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. 1st. New York, NY: Marshall Jones Company, 1933. Print.
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