Anthony Comstock had a troubled relationship with Venus, and her depiction in “Birth of Venus” (Naissance de Venus) by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel was perhaps the greatest cause of his unease.
The original was painted by Cabanel and exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1863. It was purchased by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, for her husband’s personal collection.
Cabanel sold the painting’s reproduction rights to art dealer and publisher Adolphe Goupil, who commissioned an in-house copyist, Adolphe Jourdan, to paint a reduced-size replica to serve as a model for an engraving. Goupil then sold Jourdan’s replica, retouched and signed by Cabanel, as a Cabanel original in 1870. American collector Henry W. Derby purchased this second “Birth of Venus,” in turn selling it to the wealthy Philadelphia collector Henry C. Gibson in 1871.
In 1875, New York’s John Wolfe commissioned a second copy. He sold this at auction in 1882, but apparently it remained in, or returned to, the family, because Wolfe donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days before his death in 1893.
Enter Anthony Comstock. In 1883, he raided the New York shop of Edmund Bonaventure. At the trial of the shop’s sales clerk, August Muller, an engraving of Alexandre Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” was judged obscene.
Confident that he would get a similar judgment, on November 12, 1887, Comstock raided Knoedler & Co., where he confiscated 117 prints and photos, and arrested two men on charges of selling “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting pictures.”
On November 13th, the New York Herald reported, “Many of them contained nude or partially nude figures. These were what Mr. Comstock was especially desirous of seeing. He examined them long and carefully, and finally selected a number of the more striking pictures. Among them [was] a photograph of Cabanel’s masterpiece, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ and [he] announced that he intended to take them away with him.” The article continued, “’The Birth of Venus,’ the photograph of which excites the particular ire of Mr. Comstock… is said to be his chief reliance in the proceedings which he has begun against Knoedler & Co.”
On November 15th, the Evening Telegram listed the painting as “one of the lithographs sold to Comstock’s agent [Joseph Britton, in September], and on which the warrant was issued.”
In the same day’s Telegram, artist John La Farge said, “The idea of Mr. Comstock seizing a photograph of the ‘Birth of Venus’… the original painting is a magnificent one and hangs in the Luxembourg Gallery.” Landscape artist Albert Bierstadt added, “I understand that among the views seized was one of the ‘Birth of Venus’ by Cabanel. Now, I am sure that that picture is not immoral or intended to be such.” And Daniel Huntington, president of the Academy of Design, said, “The ‘Birth of Venus’ is classical in the extreme, and to seize a picture of that nature is nothing less than an outrage.”
The Telegram rounded out its coverage by saying, “There is an American variety of vegetable which is indigenous. The Cabbagensis Comstockius, or Comstockian cabbage-head, would not thrive in any other soil.”
On the same day, the Daily Register of Hudson, N.Y., noted, “That excessively virtuous man, Anthony Comstock, has broken out again… The picture which especially aroused the virtuous man’s ire was the famous one, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ a classical work.”
And then the “walking back” began. The New York Times printed a letter from Samuel Colgate, President of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which supported Comstock and the seizures. Oddly, the last line read, “We would also add that the picture, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ was not the subject matter of this complaint.”
Did Colgate mean “the sole subject matter”? By “picture” did he mean the painting itself, and not the prints that Britton bought and Comstock confiscated? Was he worried about offending the wealthy owners of the painting? Was he misinformed by Comstock, or just lying?
On the next day, November 16th, the Evening Telegram featured a line drawing of the “Birth of Venus” on its front page, and said of Comstock, “Personally he is incapable of distinguishing between that which is pure in intent and that which is intended to be immoral. All paintings of the nude, even those by Cabanel and Bouguereau, are to him the same as any vulgar lithograph which caters to depraved tastes, and he admits openly, I believe, that he can see no difference. His seizure of the ‘Birth of Venus’ proves that conclusively.”
That day, the owner of one of the copies of “Birth of Venus,” Henry C. Gibson, told the Herald’s Philadelphia reporter, “No one is more opposed to obscene illustrations or publications than I am, but ‘The Birth of Venus’ is a painting which I would show to any lady or any friend as a high work of art.”
On November 17th, echoing Samuel Colgate, Comstock said that the “Birth of Venus” was not among the exhibits in his possession. One wonders where it went. He also asked the District Attorney to take action against the Telegram for its nude drawings. The official declined.
The November 19th issue of The Critic noted, “Cabanel’s ‘Birth of Venus’ from the original in the Luxembourg, particularly aroused the complainant’s animosity.”
Also on November 19th, the Albany Argus opined, “Thousands may gaze at Cabanel’s exquisite work, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ and not be shocked at the sight as Mr. Comstock and his society assume to be.”
On January 3, 1888, the preliminary examination was held before Justice Kilbreth in the Tombs Police Court. After some discussion, the Court held that only the pictures bought by Joseph Britton could be put in evidence, “and not the three bushels, more or less, seized under the bench warrant on November 12th.”
Under oath, Comstock’s agent, Joseph Britton, said that none of the pictures in the Telegram, which included the “Birth of Venus,” were among those he purchased in September. The reporter for the Herald wrote, “This fact seemed to be a revelation to counsel and spectators alike.”
And so the “Birth of Venus” vanished like mist from the memories of both Anthony Comstock and Joseph Britton.
The painting did make one more appearance in connection with Comstock. In March of 1888, the Carey brothers, proprietors of an Oswego, N.Y., restaurant at the corner of West Bridge and Second streets, announced that they had acquired a copy of “The Birth of Venus,” painted by a Boston artist, Alfred Bryant Copeland, living in Paris.
The Oswego Palladium reported, “A complaint has been made to Anthony Comstock, of New York, that the Carey Brothers, restaurant keepers of this city, have exposed in their place of business an obscene picture, and that Mr. Comstock is asked to investigate and take action in the case.”
As history has shown, such a visit would have brought more business to the restaurant, but it did not happen. The Carey brothers sold their painting the following year.
The original of Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” is now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
The first replica was in Henry C. Gibson’s collection until 1892, when it went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, as a bequest. In 2002, the Academy sold the painting at auction to the Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, N.Y.
John Wolfe donated his replica to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days before his death in 1893.
Alfred Bryant Copeland’s 1887 copy sold at a Christie’s auction in 1992 for $14,300.