Throughout his career artist Mark Ryden painted numerous paintings featuring the figure of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America. One of the earliest examples is the painting The Birth of Venus (1998). This bizarre scene depicts Lincoln lying on the ground giving birth to baby Venus from his cheek. The birth is facilitated by another American icon, Colonel Sanders. In an interview the artist confessed that he originally wanted to paint Colonel Sanders giving birth to Abraham Lincoln, but he felt this combination was too mundane, and the scene needed a unique twist.
Ryden is a central figure of the Lowbrow art movement, which is also known by the name Pop Surrealism. Surrealism is the key to understanding works like The Birth of Venus - Ryden uses a surrealist strategy of combining unrelated images together to form an otherworldly scene. Ryden’s strategy is unique in that he consciously combines imagery that is loaded with well-established cultural connotations. This is the case in The Birth of Venus: Abraham Lincoln is one of the best known figures in U.S history. Ryden has described him as the “King Presidents”, he led the nation through the Civil War and abolished slavery. In 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theatre. In the Inspiration Section of the book The Art of Mark Ryden: Amina Mundi, Ryden placed a photograph of Lincoln next to a photograph of a Colonel Sanders statue. Colonel Sanders, an American businessman, was best known for founding the popular chain restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Sanders became the living trademark of KFC, and his image is a part of American pop culture. Both Lincoln and Sanders are more than historic figures, they are icons and their images are part of the American collective consciousness. Ryden explores their iconic status in various paintings like The Debutante (1998) and The Ringmaster (2001).
The Birth of Venus also features other elements that are repeated in Ryden’s body of work, namely religious imagery and meat. In the top left corner of the painting, Jesus blesses the newly born baby Venus, while in the bottom right corner a nurse presents a slab of meat to Abraham Lincoln. These two elements are possibly connected. Ryden explained that he was fascinated by the biblical verse from Matthew 26:26: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, Take, eat; this is my body.” Ryden could have been inspired by the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, in which Christians drink sacramental wine that symbolizes the blood of Christ and eat sacramental bread that symbolizes Christ’s flesh. Ryden’s literal interpretation of the Eucharist in The Birth of Venus injects humor and absurdity to the painting. The Birth of Venus was featured in Ryden’s fist solo exhibition “The Meat Show” that opened in 1998 in Pasadena, California.