Venus de Milo

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Venus de Milo

The Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue of the goddess Aphrodite, famous both for her missing arms and as a symbol of female beauty. The Venus de Milo is perhaps one of the best-known works of art in the world; in popular culture, frequent reference is made both to her beauty and—often humorously—to her armlessness.

The name Venus de Milo comes from Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite, and Milos, the Greek island where the statue was discovered in 1820 and purchased for the French government. The Venus de Milo's 1821 arrival in Paris sparked a scholarly controversy that raged for almost a century. National pride caused many French scholars to argue—against all evidence—that the statue dated from the Classical era, which was considered the apex of Greek art, while others insisted that the statue had been carved much later. The most damning evidence that the Venus de Milo was not of the Classical period was a detached segment of the base that attributed the statue to a sculptor named Alexandros. Alexandros, according to the inscription, came from the city of Antioch, which had not been founded until 270 bce, well after the end of the Classical period. Although this piece fit perfectly with the pedestal of the Venus de Milo, the director of the Louvre and other scholars argued that it could not possibly be part of the statue. The base disappeared from the Louvre during the initial reconstruction process and was never seen by the public.

By the 1950s, Alexandros had been widely accepted as the Venus's sculptor; the statue is now believed to date from roughly 80 bce. Evidence suggests that the Venus once occupied a niche in the wall of a gymnasium; one hand most likely held the drapery about her waist, while the other held an apple out in front of her for contemplation. The apple was both a reference to the apple-shaped island of Milos, whose name derives from the Greek for "apple," and to the myth of Aphrodite, who was judged by Paris to be the most beautiful of three goddesses and received in reward a golden apple.

The Venus's long-term European and North American associations with beauty are hardly accidental. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and sexual desire; the apple that she likely contemplated, as Gregory Curtis (2003) suggests, is the very symbol of her physical perfection. The controversy over the statue's origins, moreover, speaks loudly to the notions of beauty that were held by nineteenth century European society. Classical Greek art was believed by scholars and philosophers to represent the pinnacle of aesthetics, and all good art and standards of beauty were thought to refer back to that period. Upon her arrival in Paris, the Venus de Milo was loudly and persistently proclaimed to be a stunning example of female beauty; her grace and beauty alone convinced many that the Venus was of Classical origin. The statue is one of the most popular exhibits in the Louvre (and has been since it was first installed there), and even to the layperson its loveliness and power are easily appreciated. The establishment of the Venus as a standard for female beauty, however, has become problematic for many, as it rests on a set of aesthetic assumptions that are both racially and culturally Western European in origin. Some scholars have begun to dispute that the Venus is beautiful, citing in particular her blank expression, while others have begun to examine the implications of her pose, location, and attire in terms of gender and sexuality. In the popular imagination, however, the Venus de Milo has been an exemplar of female beauty since its discovery.

see also Greco-Roman Art.


Arscott, Caroline, and Katie Scott, eds. 2001. Manifestations of Venus: Art and Sexuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Curtis, Gregory. 2003. Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo. New York: Knopf.

                                                Maureen Lauder