From Botticelli’s Venus to Victoria’s Secret

Advertising Trolling Art History

  • Text: Robert Grunenberg

In the last episode of his documentary Ways of Seeing, John Berger connected the dots between art and ads by saying that the goddesses of art history became the models of commercial photography. The nude Venus, swathed in an inconsequential scrap of gauze, appears throughout the canonical époques, and now floats her way into commercials hawking anything from alcohol to underwear. Art history can tell us a lot about the way that we absorb the barrage of images we are subjected to every day — where art defines what beauty is, advertising uses our appreciation of it to sell us things. By investigating the history of the human form in Western art, we see The Three Graces mutate into the supermodels of the 90s, and begin to understand just how enduring an image can be. Robert Grunenberg looks at three distinct ways physical beauty is figured to show that advertising has been trolling art history since the Edward Bernays early days.

Comme des Garcons Fall/Winter 1988 campaign


Have you ever seen a painting or a sculpture of Jesus Christ that depicts the son of god laughing? No, because Jesus doesn’t LOL. He is one of the biggest superstars of Western art history, and yet you’ve probably only encountered him with a resting serenity face. Until the 13th century, there wasn’t a smiling, or even simpering, Jesus. And if there wasn’t a jolly Jesus, there weren’t any other portrait sitters laughing it up, since Jesus was the highest authority at that time.

In the late Byzantine period and the early Medieval Age, the explicit expression of emotion was considered a bad look. The Christian theologist Clement of Alexandria wrote an influential essay about laughter in his book Paedagogus (c. 198), in which he damned it as a low act of human behavior. The heathens who wrote theatrical comedies were banned from the Greek polis and Clement propagated that Christians should never appear as actors, or worse, as clowns who make people laugh. Laughing was a sinful practice, an animalistic loss of control. In the sixth century, monks went crazy for the monastic precept The Rule of the Master, which formulated strict somatophobic instruction: no sex, no laughing, no hedonistic pleasures as we love and embrace them today. It's a mystery how sixth century merchants peddled their wares in the port without an airbrushed supermodel’s coercion.

Only in the 13th century did smiling become an expression of transcendent emotion. The beaming angels at the cathedral portals in Reims newly represented bliss, the highest of all emotions. Eventually, the smiling angels from Reims gave way to cheeky portraits like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Perhaps the most famous painting in history, everyone was drawn to Mona’s ambiguous smirk. The painting triggered a new range of emotional illustration in religious, historical, and portrait art.

“Advertising is based on one thing—happiness,” says Don Draper, fictional Madison Avenue ad maestro. Today, smile and laughter are currency of their own. Pictures of jovial models and celebrities increase consumer joy and lend an overall positive brand evaluation. On social media, selfies are likely to have more engagement, and smiling people are generally perceived as more confident. Laughter has once again been connected to humor, an elaborated form of communication and indication of intelligence. May it be art, ads or, social media—the smile has become a potent carrier of meaning, an indication of blissful exaltation, and capitalism’s go-to way of saying, “Buy this thing!”

Behind-the-scenes of the Pirelli Calendar 2011


At the Vatican Museums in the heart of Rome, you can find the best surviving copy of Knidian Aphrodite from the Greek artist Praxiteles. It is the first monumental statue of a goddess to be represented completely in the nude, and the first positioned with her hand over her pubis. This posture has become one of the most common poses for the nude female subject in the history of Western art, known as the “Venus pudica” pose. In every century, this posture appears, by the likes of Praxiteles, Botticelli, Manet, and Picasso. Its popularity was not only expressed in countless replicas, it also literally set in stone a lasting perception of the female body.

When Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, invented the field of “public relations,” what he discovered was that the principles of psychoanalysis could be harnessed to manipulate the masses. Intrigued by Uncle Sigmund’s ideas that people were motivated by irrational desires, he worked them into his business practice, manipulating these desires to sell goods. And so, consumer culture was born, indirectly but wholly shaped by the psychoanalytic techniques of Freud. Since Bernays’ heyday, nothing has sold more product than the image of a beautiful naked woman, and ad imagery has continually mined classical art for its model of feminine beauty.

May it be Aphrodite, Venus, or Olympia—these works initiated an ongoing infatuation with the naked female form, in which the nude woman is construed as a pseudo-deity, perfect and poised, coveted by men and envied by women. The reigning concept of female beauty in the Western world was derived from these early depictions and would persist for centuries: nude, hairless, youthful, white. Only in the past half-century have we actively started to deconstruct these images, and to demand a wider and more diverse reflection of beauty. Now, more than ever, there is a demand for fashion and advertising imagery to diversify, to move away from the singular vision of the long-haired, ivory-skinned goddesses of canonical Western artworks. Evidentially, aesthetic traditions die hard, even if they come in a range of contemporary looks.

Tres in Una, Paul Richer, 1913

Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538

Charlotte Rampling by Juergen Teller

Lily Cole for Vogue Italia, 2005


In 1564 German master Lucas Cranach the Elder painted an impressive allegory of one of humanity’s deepest desires: eternal youth. In Fountain of Youth, dozens of naked women bathe in healing springs, hoping to achieve everlasting beauty. The fixation on youth that is, today more than ever, a defining force of global culture, goes back to Ancient Greek mythology and Hebe, goddess of youth. Daughter of Zeus and Hera, and later wife to Heracles, Hebe was the keeper of the fountain, and so had the power to reverse aging. Hebe was known to be exceptionally beautiful and, along with other sexy young things like Ganymede, became a popular figure in Western art over centuries, always representing budding sexuality and rosy-cheeked good looks.

Today, youth culture is undeniably the most powerful vehicle by which to market fashion to the consumer. Using models to commodify adolescence is common-place, as teenagers present runway collections to front-rows filled with people their grandparents’ age. The beauty industry is built on elixirs that claim to restore or maintain a youthful look, relying on young faces to sell product. In 2011, Tom Ford featured two young nude models showering each other in his Neroli Portofino fragrance collection, a contemporary tribute to Cranach’s Fountain of Youth.

The Fountain of Youth, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546

Tom Ford Neroli Portofino

Hundreds of years later, advertising continues to tap the Fountain of Youth narrative, an early story of transformation based in consumption. Drink this and instantly possess eternal youth and beauty! The Fountain of Youth does what the advertising industry does as a whole—promises an immaterial fantasy by way of a material substance. The transformation involves contact with something physical, but in advertising, a pool of water is supplanted for a car or a luxury handbag. Advertising imagery imitates works of art and gestures from the past to tap into a sense of prestige, but also to access age-old fantasies — of happiness, of sex, of youth and beauty. Where art offers us beauty for art’s sake, advertising offers beauty as a consumer good. As the late, great John Berger tells us, “publicity and oil painting use many of the same references and celebrate the same qualities in things. They share many of the same ideals, all of them related to the principle that you are what you have. Their purpose, and their effects, however, are very different.”

  • Text: Robert Grunenberg