The Birth of Venus was one of the great successes of the 1863 Salon, where it was bought by Napoleon III. Typical of Cabanel's virtuoso technique, this facile and disciplined painting is a perfect example of popular and official artistic taste of the period. In an eclectic spirit characteristic of the Second Empire, Cabanel combines references to Ingres with an 18th century style of painting.
Here, however, the mythological theme is simply a pretext for the portrayal of a nude figure who, though idealized, is nonetheless depicted in a lascivious pose. Emile Zola denounced this ambiguity: "the goddess, drowned in a river of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan, not made of flesh and bone - that would be indecent - but of a sort of pink and white marzipan".
Leaving this academic tradition far behind, Manet's Olympia, painted with honesty and vigour, caused a major scandal.