Paris Bordone: Painter of Venetian flesh

Paris Bordone, Venetian Mannerist painter of allegorical subjects, is best known for his sexualised paintings of women. His semi-undressed females, captured in close interaction despite the crowded space, often combine portraiture with allegory. Bordone’s obsessive depiction of courtesans mixes elements of French Mannerism with an erotic appeal to his wealthy Venetian clients. His is a sensuous style that anticipates the Venetian painting of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Born in Treviso on the Venetian mainland, Bordone moved to Venice as a teenager. He apprenticed briefly and, according to Vasari, unhappily with Titian. The hostility between the two artists may have limited Bordone’s access to public commissions in Venice. As an artist, he transitioned from depictions of the Holy Family to erotic paintings of semi-nude women, especially during and after his stint at the French royal court and his exposure to the School of Fontainebleau.

Bordone drew on figure studies from his model book throughout his career. His works are carefully planned, drawn and meticulously painted, with no attempt to emulate the free brushwork of Titian or Tintoretto who were his contemporaries. His Mannerism comes through in figures composed in oddly tilted poses occupying the extreme foreground and in the texture of curled fabrics and draperies. He also favours strong, contrasting colours, such as deep crimson and indigo-blue.

Bordone’s women are always depicted with supreme sensuousness. His many goddesses and courtesans tend to a type: titillating yet cold, with braided hair and glowing skin and gorgeous costumes of velvet and satin. The artist’s delight in detail and texture is consistent in the way he conveys soft, supple skin and luxurious fabrics or lustrous gems. Set in a distant countryside or ornate interiors, Bordone’s paintings create a spatial ambiguity and serve a decorative purpose.

The artist’s Venetian Women at their Toilet, my favourite Bordone, hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Its two younger women would have been recognised by contemporaries as courtesans. Their braided hair cascades over their shoulders and the central figure’s unfastened bodice is sensually provocative. She admires her reflection in the mirror held by their procuress. The mirror alludes to the transience of physical beauty, which Bordone captures in the moment.