When I saw a painting ‘Beauty and Love’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds in Sir John Soane’s Museum, I realised that there is a very close copy of this canvas in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, Russia. Being interested in the story of these two paintings I found out that there is the third version in Tate Britain. Though this third painting by Reynolds wasn’t on display I asked for a private view in Tate Store. Should be said that my request was satisfied and I was lucky enough not only to have an hour with the canvas but also to meet some other masterpieces like Rodin’s sculpture.

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From left to right: ‘Beauty and Love’ at Soane’s Museum (London), ‘A Nymph and Cupid’ at Tate Britain (London) and ‘Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus’ at Hermitage (St.Petersburg)

 

There are several titles that are associated with these series of paintings: Beauty and Love, The Snake in the Grass, A Nymph and Cupid, Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus, Love Unloosing the Zone of Beauty. However, these titles are not so controversial. At all the canvases we see Venus, who is a goddess of Beauty, and Cupid, who is the god of Love. However, looking at the origins of these gods and the mood of this painting it would be more suitable to name it Temptation and Desire.

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Fragment with a snake at Tate’s version

Talking about the title ‘The Snake in the Grass’ we should find and see the Snake. However, the snake is visible only on Tate’s canvas. I have no proven explanation why there is a snake. It can be that a snake, or serpent, is associated here with the sensuality and sexual desire. I think it is the closest meaning to the idea of this canvas.

Reynolds painted Soane’s painting in 1785. The next version was exhibited in Tate museum in 1788. Afterwards Lord Carysfort asked Reynolds for one more replica as a gift to prince Grigory Potemkin, a great lover of Englishness.

Lady Emma Hamilton is said to be depicted as a model for these paintings. She was a famous and one of the most desirable models. However, I couldn’t find any evidences proving this. Besides, comparing this model to Lady Emma, painted by George Romney (and he painted her dozens of times) I could not see a significant resemble to say that Reynolds depicted her as well.

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‘Emma as a Bacchante’ by G.Romney, 1785 (fragment)

 

The most interesting part for me was to find out what is “a zone” and what importance it had. ‘Zone’ is an archaic word for a belt or girdle. Venus Zone is the belt of Venus, the goddess of Beauty and Love. To understand the function I applied to Homer and his “Iliad”. There is a scene where Saturnia (who is Hera) asks Venus for her power of charming anyone — she wanted to divert Jove’s attention (Zeus) from the Trojan War.

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Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus by Guy Head, 1771 (fragment)

 

In this was every art, and every charm,
To win the wisest, and the coldest warm:
Fond love, the gentle vow, the gay desire,

This on her hand the Cyprian Goddess laid:
“Take this, and with it all thy wish;” she said. 

(The Iliad of Homer: XIV – 258)