Reflectıons of 19th Century Moral Phılosophy on Art: Venus ın the Ethıcs Class

In every art movement, different Venus paintings were created and each of them reflected its own Venus interpretation. Alexandre Cabanel’s and Edouard Manet’s Venus paintings are the paintings that have the most impact on both their time and the next generation of artists. It can be argued that these two paintings both created in 1863, besides other interpretations, are also about moral obligations that we have and their relationship with the idea of God.

Naissance de Venus by Alexandre Cabanel

I think Cabanel and the academia saw these Ancient Gods, Goddesses, and the other religious themes as the instruments that make people inspired to have more virtuous souls. They conceived them as almost perfect beings. Although some expressions include different moral and physical flaws, I think it is obvious that the world of these mythical creatures is beyond our world and so far different. It seems to me that the artists thought these creatures’ world as a purpose for our world. They wanted us to live in a way that so our world turns into a world as these Gods and Goddesses have, and this world was the ideal one in these artists’ minds. They preferred smooth transitions between colors, showed their divine beauty and goodness like a fairytale. We do not even see Venus’ eyes so that we can watch these paintings for hours without feeling uncomfortable, and meditate, try to understand how they perfectly decent and after leaving the gallery, we can struggle to be more virtuous as much as they are.

Olympia by Édouard Manet

However, when we turn our face to Manet’s Venus, it all changes. First of all, when I look at this painting, I feel like I’m looking in the mirror. There is no divine perfection in it. She looks at us while we see her. Everything in the painting serves the idea that she is like us. Maybe this was not the main idea that Manet wanted to express but I think that this painting draws us a frame for our epistemological borders. The knowledge that we have about our world is limited to our perceptions and our perceptions only lead our desires. The other concepts that shape our lives, such as the concept of motivation, attitude, and action, arising from the concept of desire. The flowers in the painting show that she is desired. Her indifference to the flowers shows that she desires something else. Therefore, I think Manet’s painting says that we should not follow that we don’t know. The ideas of Gods, Goddesses, and their worlds are just in our minds and thus, we don’t have any knowledge about them. So, thinking and meditating about them cannot help us at all. I think that this is the reason why Venus is one of us in his painting and the concept of desire is at the center. This painting is about the truth that all we know is our perceptions.

At this point, I imagined myself as a citizen who loves art in 1863. If I saw Cabanel’s painting in a gallery, and then Manet’s painting, what would I feel and think? I would probably fall into skepticism because once we understand the limits of our knowledge; we can clearly see that we cannot derive from them any moral judgments without accepting any assumptions since we do not even know the source of our perceptions. This was the common philosophical debate of that time. And the rest is history! We questioned our world more than ever before. Our skepticism in the ethical plane was replaced by science, the study of perceptions, and so we reached today’s technology.

As a result, it is plausible to make such an interpretation when we think of the philosophical environment of the 19th century. We can see reflections of these debates on such Venus paintings. I do not say that these philosophical debates began with these Venus paintings, but what I say is we can see the traces of this debate on them. The fact that these two paintings are still open to different interpretations 150 years after their creation reveals how rich and valuable they are


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