BC/AD Sculpture Ancient to Modern

BC/AD Sculpture Ancient to Modern

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 5. JOHN GIBSON  | THE TINTED VENUS.

Property from an English Private Collection


Lot Closed

July 9, 01:18 PM GMT


120,000 - 180,000 GBP

Lot Details


Property from an English Private Collection






white marble, on a scagliola column with revolving top, later painted black

figure: 118cm., 46½in.

column: 92cm., 36¼in.

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Christie’s, London, 18 March 1880, lot 133, 'Purchased by the late owner from the sculptor's studio. On a scagliola pedestal with revolving top';

Christie’s, London, 15 December 1982, lot 344, where acquired by the present owner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in the history of Victorian sculpture, John Gibson’s Tinted Venus is its greatest icon. Since the sculpture's presentation at the 1862 Universal Exhibition in its tinted form, it has been received with both admiration and admonition. Whilst the disapproving opinions of contemporary commentators have generally been given more prominence, such as that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning who felt that she had ‘seldom … seen so indecent a statue’, many artists, and the general public, were more effusive, including the Sculptor's Journal (1863) which described it as 'one of the most beautiful and elaborate figures undertaken in modern times'.

The present marble is a rare two-thirds life-size example of Gibson's notorious Tinted Venus, with a provenance that can be traced back directly to the sculptor's Roman studio. The quality of the carving is extremely fine and it is preserved in beautiful condition. Its sale presents collectors with one of the last opportunities to acquire a rare example of Gibson's finest work.

John Gibson (fig. 1) and the debate on colour in sculpture

To understand the full impact that the Tinted Venus made at the 1862 exhibition it is important to visualize the way it was displayed. A stereoscopic colour photograph (fig. 2) shows the Tinted Venus standing at the front of a large Grecian Temple, itself brightly coloured, designed by Owen Jones, the Welsh architect who had been responsible for the interior decoration of the 1851 Great Exhibition. The Temple received nearly as much attention, and mostly criticism, as Gibson’s Venus. Whilst most comments on the sculpture were focused on the Tinted Venus, the Temple, in fact, included two more Gibson marbles, Pandora and Cupid tormenting the soul, both of which were also tinted. This was not just another exhibit in an international show, but a manifesto for a new approach.

Gibson was conscious that in colouring his Venus he was doing something controversial. He wrote: ‘I took the liberty to decorate it in a fashion unprecedented in modern times’ (Eastlake, op. cit. p. 211). From a letter Gibson wrote to Sir Charles Eastlake in 1861 (Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 870174-6) it is apparent that he was expecting controversy: ‘I expect the people, encouraged by the scrib[b]lers, will fancy that it is not right to paint statues. I am quite convinced, that when delicately done, it gives a great charm to the effect of sculpture. The public ought to be instructed, they are all ignorant of everything relating to art.’

Michael Hatt (M. Droth, J. Edwards, M. Hatt. op. cit.) has examined the context in which the Tinted Venus stimulated a public debate on colour in sculpture that had been a topic of scholarly discussion across Europe for several years. It is significant that the work is called ‘Tinted’, because this, Hatt proposes, enabled an acceptability by allowing the inherent form and character of the white marble to remain visible through the tinting. This is where the delicacy Gibson mentions becomes key, because it is not a multi-coloured, naturalistic painting of the figure, which would have risked the appearance of being like a wax work from Mme Tussaud’s famous tourist attraction; of which many still accused it.

This was not the first marble Gibson had tinted. He had added colour to his portrait of Queen Victoria by applying blue, red and yellow to the diadem, sandals, and borders of the drapery, much to the approval of Albert and Victoria. He also tinted his only other full-size female portrait statue of the Hon. Mrs Henry Murray, later Countess Beauchamp. Gibson actually completed the Murray portrait without the addition of any colour, but then added it at the request of the sitter. This demonstrates that Gibson’s tinting of his marbles certainly had some influential admirers.

The question of how the ancient Greeks and Romans coloured their sculpture was a heated topic of debate among intellectuals and artists in Rome and across Europe. Gibson, who was current with developments across the continent, is said to have been influenced by such innovative experiments with colour as Leo von Klenze's 1842 Walhalla Temple, near Regensburg, with its imposing coloured caryatids. But what perhaps shocked the British audiences most was that it was the most famous English sculptor working in Rome, taught by both Canova and Thorvaldsen, who was proposing such a radical new thesis.

The origins of the Tinted Venus

The model of the Tinted Venus was not originally conceived to be tinted. Joseph Neeld, heir to the wealthy (and notoriously miserly) silversmith Philip Rundell, commissioned a standing Venus from Gibson for his renowned collection of British contemporary sculpture, housed at Grittleton Hall in Wiltshire; a collection rivalled only by that assembled by the 6th Duke of Devonshire for Chatsworth. Neeld stipulated ‘a Venus, nude, but with some drapery modestly arranged without sacrificing too much the form’. Gibson first exhibited the work at the Royal Academy in 1839 with the title of the Venus Verticordia, which means ‘changer of hearts’. In ancient Rome, it was believed that Venus Verticordia had the power to change the hearts of women and girls from lust to chastity. Today in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the model is the same as the second, and tinted version, commissioned by the Liverpudlian businessman, Robert Preston, except in the Preston marble Venus wears earrings, which is unique to that version. The attention, bordering on obsessive devotion, Gibson gave to the Tinted Venus demonstrates that the repetition of models in 19th century sculpture need not necessarily be a mechanical, delegated process. Indeed, Gibson considered the Preston version superior to the Neeld Venus and he became so attached to this first tinted version that he kept it in his studio for four years after it was complete, much to the chagrin of the Prestons who were desperate to receive their commission. Gibson claimed that the delay was because he was so enraptured by her, but he also proudly lists the royal and noble patrons who saw it during this prolonged stay (no doubt with the hope of stimulating new commissions) - ‘The Grand Duchess Olga, her Imperial Majesty the Dowager Empress of Russia, Grand Duchess Helena, the two Kings of Bavaria, the Prince of Prussia, H.R.H. The Count of Syracuse and her Imperial Highness the Duchess of Leuchtenberg’.

Gibson’s observation of nature 

It is a paradox of neoclassical sculpture that to the modern viewer the mythological and ideal marble figures which dominate this genre can seem lifeless, cold and formulaic. However, Gibson, like other contemporaries, often spoke of their inspiration from the world around them. For Gibson this was one of the main reasons he stayed in Rome. He believed that the ‘diligent artist must carefully watch the movement of nature. This is of the greatest importance. By such observations he becomes original, and acquires simple, graceful, and natural action. The streets of Rome are in this respect a real academy. The inhabitants of warm climates are more free in their movements than those of cold countries.’ And, it was one such observation of everyday life that determined the relaxed composition of the Tinted Venus. ‘... I had often remarked that ladies, when holding a fan or any light object generally place their hands in repose in front of the person. Thus, I made my Venus stand, with a golden apple, which she holds quietly in her left hand.’ Art historians can analyse to what extent Gibson was influenced by Canova’s Venus Italica, or Thorvaldsen’s Venus Victrix, or even the antique Medici Venus in the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence, but for Gibson his personal observation of nature was certainly just as instrumental in the final definition of the model. And indeed, the delicate arrangement of Venus's hands is particularly original and very beautiful. An insight into Gibson’s exploration of ‘the movement of nature’ can be discerned from a study of his drawings, many of which form part of the Gibson bequest at the Royal Academy.

Commissions for smaller versions of the Tinted Venus

Gibson’s workshop in the via della Fontanella was a major stop on the tour of sculptors' workshops in Rome as described in the famous handbook by Hawks Le Grice in the 1840s. He employed specialised modellers, carvers and mould-makers and had a number of aspiring students, such as Harriet Hosmer, William Theed and Benjamin Spence. However, his output of repetitions was modest in comparison with a sculptor such as Hiram Powers and others; what is abundantly clear from his own accounts is that he importantly never gave carving up himself. Gibson was and remained a sculptor who enjoyed modelling and carving his entire life. The list of his works published by Eastlake (op. cit., pp. 249-255) and Matthews (op. cit., pp. 241-247), whilst accepted as incomplete, rarely records more than three or four replicas. These could either be full-size or of reduced dimensions. The choice was determined partly by budget, but also by convenience. Therefore, when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) accompanied by his wife and the Prince and Princess of Prussia visited Gibson's studio and went on to dine with the sculptor, the Prince and Princess of Wales purchased a reduced size Tinted Venus (94cm. RCIN 2022). That some of these were originally tinted is documented in the account of the above visit, but none of the small versions known to the present author (see list below) retain any of their original colour, perhaps indicating that many patrons preferred it untinted.

A Welshman in Rome

Born in Wales and raised in Liverpool, John Gibson (fig. 1) had a spectacular career. Having completed his apprenticeships, aged 26, the ambitious Welshman arrived in London as an aspiring artist in 1817. William Blake, Henri Fuseli and John Flaxman became his friends, and Joseph Nollekens was an early influence in the field of sculpture. He exhibited a couple of times at the Royal Academy and within two years had realised the dream of every young contemporary sculptor (except Chantrey) to study in Rome. Supported financially by his early patrons from the North West, including William Roscoe and Sir George D’Aguilar, he arrived in the Eternal City with letters of introduction and within a couple of days Abbé William Hamilton had introduced him to Antonio Canova, the greatest living artist in Europe. The following two years, which he spent with Canova, shaped his career and his sculptural ideology; Canova’s experiments with colour are just one example of this influence. Gibson went on to study with Bertel Thorvaldsen and at the age of 31, opened his own studio in Via della Fontanella, near the Piazza del Popolo where he was able to entertain clients and win commissions - he had arrived.

‘I thank God for every morning that opens my eyes in Rome’, Gibson proclaimed, and he continued to live and work in Rome all his life. He ran an active studio, but was not a natural businessman. One of his most prestigious early commissions was for a monumental marble group of Mars restrained by Cupid ordered by the 6th Duke of Devonshire for which he was paid £500, however, the work eventually cost Gibson £520. Gibson’s star pupil, the American Harriet Hosmer, described Gibson as ‘a god in his studio, but God help him when he is out of it.’ Nevertheless, Gibson left a respectable fortune of £32,000 which he bequeathed to the Royal Academy of Arts, along with many studio plasters, and a full-size marble Tinted Venus.

In conclusion, Gibson himself best summarised his ambitions in working on the Tinted Venus: ‘The expression which I have attempted to give to my Venus is that of purity and sweetness, with an air of unaffected dignity and grace, and spiritual elevation of character'; preeminently worthy Victorian values for the quintessential Victorian sculpture.

A list of known and recorded versions of the Tinted Venus

The notoriety of the Tinted Venus brought Gibson further commissions for different versions of the model. The following is a summary of the existing and documented examples known to the present author.


Plaster, h. 172.7cm., Royal Academy of Arts, Gibson Bequest (03/1922). 

Untinted marbles:

- Prime marble version, Venus Verticordia, h. 174cm., signed (on the tortoise) : OPVS IOANNIS GIBSON ROMAE, made for Joseph Neeld, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839, no. 1303. Now, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, (inv. no. M.4-1975); 

- Marble, h. 167.7cm., signed: OPVS IOANNIS GIBSON ROMAE, acquired from the artist's studio. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Gibson Bequest (inv. no. 03/6185 - currently on loan to Bridgewater House, London);

- Marble, h. 166cm., signed: IOHANNES GIBSON ME FECIT ROMAE, commissioned by Matthew Uzielli (Eastlake, op. cit. p. 251), his sale, Christie’s, 12-20 April 1861, lot 140 on 12 April and again at Christie’s on 2-12 August 1875, lot 804 on 9 August, when sold by R.G. Naylor of Hooton Hall, Cheshire. Again at Christie's on 22 April 1893, lot [?], where bought by Savage for The Drapers’ Company, London. Now Drapers' Hall, London.

Tinted marbles:

- Prime tinted marble, h. 175cm., signed: I GIBSON EPOIEI EN ROMEI, commissioned by Mr and Mrs Robert Preston, exhibited at the International Exhibition London, 1862. Sold Christie's 28 July 1890 lot [?], bought by Thomas J. Barratt of Bell Moor, Hampstead. Sold in 1916 to J. W. Dearden. Sold Sotheby’s 27 October 1971, lot 22 from the collection of P. J. Dearden (£2,400). Now, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (inv. no. WAG7808); 

- Tinted marble, h. 175.9cm., signed: I. GIBSON ME FECIT ROMAE, commissioned by the Marquess of Sligo, Ireland, probably for Westport House (1851-6). Sold Sotheby’s 22 November 1983, lot 95, from the collection of Lord Altamont (£62,000). Now, Stewart and Lynda Resnick collection, Beverly Hills; 

- Tinted marble, h. 180cm., signed: OPVS IONNIS GIBSON ROMAE, on a marble column (tinting possibly later), Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco, 17 & 19 June 1997, lot 3250, from the collection of Nancy Dollar, San Francisco ($145,000)

Reduced marbles from 122cm to 62cm in height descending order:

- Marble, h. 122cm., with revolving marble pedestal (69cm), sold Sotheby’s, 17 November 1933, lot 60, 'removed from a well-known house in Bedford Square the property of a gentleman who is changing residence';

- Marble h. 117cm., signed: I GIBSON FECIT ROMAE, probably sold Christie’s, 18 March 1880, lot 133, on a scagliola pedestal with revolving top. Acquired by vendor ‘from the sculptor’s studio’. Sold Christie’s, 15 December 1982, lot 344, the present lot, acquired by present owner;

- Marble, h. 114cm., sold Sotheby’s 29 November 1991, lot 218, signed, on a marble column; 

- Marble, h. 108cm., signed: [?] Fecit Romae Sotheby’s 21 June 1988, lot 25, re-offered 20 June 1989, lot 33;

- Marble, h. 107cm, signed: I GIBSON FECIT ROMAE, Sotheby’s 6 December 2011, lot 93, (possibly the same as that offered in 1988 and 1989);

- Marble, h. 94cm., Royal Collections (inv. no. RCIN 2022), (repaired neck and damage to the fingers on the left hand);

- Marble, h. 94cm., signed: j Gibson Inven to..., on an oval plinth, sold Phillips, 30 June 1987, lot 83A;

- Marble, h. 74cm., Art Gallery of New South Wales (no. 1214), purchased in 1892, (repaired through the neck);

- Marble, h. 62cm, Sotheby’s, 19 April 2000, lot 84, unsigned (after Gibson) 


E. R. Eastlake, Life of John Gibson, R.A., Sculptor, London, 1870, pp. 208-214, 251; T. Matthews, The Biography of John Gibson, R.A, Sculptor, Rome, London, 1911, pp. 179-186, 242-243;

J. Cooper, ‘John Gibson and his Tinted Venus’, Connoisseur, October 1971, pp. 84-92;

B. Read, Victorian Sculpture, New Haven and London, 1982, pp. 25-26;

M. Greenwood, ‘Victorian Ideal Sculpture 1830-1860: Merseyside Sculptors and Collectors’, Patronage & Practice: Sculpture on Merseyside, P. Curtis (ed.), Liverpool, 1989, pp. 50-56;

W. Drost, ‘Colour, Sculpture, Mimesis. A 19th century Debate’, in A. Blühm (ed.), The Colour of Sculpture 1840-1910, exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 1996, pp.61-72;

M. Hatt, 'Thoughts and Things: Sculpture and the Victorian Nude', in A. Smith (ed.), Exposed. The Victorian Nude, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2001, pp. 38-39, 186;

The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Villa, Malibu, 2008, pp. 64-65, no. 33;

T. Hufschmidt, ‘John Gibson tra Londra, Roma e Carrara e il ‘revival’ della policromia della Tinted Venus’, in S. Berresford (ed.), Sognando il marmo: cultura e commercio del marmo tra Carrara, Gran Bretagna e Impero, Carrara, 2009, pp. 69-76;

I. Roscoe (ed.), A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851, New Haven and London, 2009, pp. 521-529;

B. N. Jazzar and J. P. Marandel, Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection, exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2010-2011, pp. 284-287, no. 79;

M. Droth, J. Edwards, M. Hatt, Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901, exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven and Tate Britain, London, 2014-2015, pp. 184-188, no. 54 and 55;

A. Frasca-Rath and A. Wickham, John Gibson RA: A British Sculptor in Rome, exh. cat., Royal. Academy of Arts, London, 2016, pp. 7-1

We are grateful to Timothy Stevens for his advice in cataloguing this lot.