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The Birth of Venus

Nicolas Poussin, French, 1594 - 1665

Made in Italy, Europe

1635 or 1636

Oil on canvas

38 1/4 × 42 1/2 inches (97.2 × 108 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 376, European Art 1500-1850, third floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The George W. Elkins Collection, 1932

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The subject of this grand mythological painting remains a topic of lively debate: some see the birth of Venus, some see her triumphal parade, and others see the sea god Neptune's marine procession. There is even disagreement as to whether Venus is depicted at all. The woman in the center might instead be Galatea, a sea nymph who is often shown riding in a cockleshell chariot drawn by dolphins. As reflected here, Poussin exercised great skill in introducing multiple meanings and rich ambiguity into his paintings of classical themes. This painting used to belong to Catherine the Great and still bears a Russian inscription on the frame and a Hermitage Museum inventory number on the lower left corner of the canvas. It was sold by the Soviet government in 1930.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Although it is here entitled The Birth of Venus, the subject of this painting remains the subject of lively scholarly debate. Is it in fact the birth of Venus or her triumph? Or is it the triumph of Neptune--or of the sea nymph Galatea? The very uncertainty suggests, however, that Nicolas Poussin was not restricted by strict textual precedent but felt free to invent and to introduce multiple meanings and allusive ambiguities into his paintings on classical themes. One of the artist's most scintillating and luminous masterpieces, it shows him audaciously combining the lively interplay of magnificent nude protagonists and a friezelike compositional grandeur. Here, elegant gesture and wind-swept movement are frozen in time. Sold to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1771, the painting was sold again from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) by a Soviet government desperate for Western currency in 1932, when it was acquired for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Christopher Riopelle, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 175.

* Works in the collection are moved off view for many different reasons. Although gallery locations on the website are updated regularly, there is no guarantee that this object will be on display on the day of your visit.