history and analysis of three paintings of Venus and Cupid
by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This essay explores three canvases depicting Venus and Cupid painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds between 1785 and 1792. Currently they are located in three museums: the Hermitage (St. Petersburg), Tate (London) and Sir John Soane’s Museum (London).

Sir Joshua Reynolds (16 July 1723 – 23 February 1792), an English painter, was the most famous and influential portrait painter in Europe in the eighteenth century. When he had derived most benefits from his work as a portraitist, he changed his focus and switched to painting a classic subject of Venus – Roman goddess of love and beauty (Wendorf, 1998).

Venus was a very common subject of interest among many famous painters and sculptors. Reynolds was one of them. In 1759 the artist painted his first Venus. In his letter to the Duke of Rutland he called his works with the goddess as ‘my Venus’. That signified a very personal attitude (Bolton, 1890). After some variations and experiments on the subject he shifted his attention to the composition of Venus and Cupid.

Venus with Cupid was a popular composition for many well-known artists like Lorenzo Lotto, Titian, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Palma Vecchio, Bronzino and many others (Fig.1). Reynolds made a considerable number of variations with Venus and Cupid. The world knows three canvases most of all. They are copies of each other but with narrow variations made by Reynolds himself.

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Fig. 1 Clockwise from top left: Vecchio ‘Venus and Cupid’, 1523-24, The Fitzwilliam Museum; Cranach the Elder ‘Cupid complaining to Venus’, about 1525, The National Gallery; Lotto ’Venus and Cupid’, mid-1520s, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Bronzino ‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’, about 1545, The National Gallery; Titian ‘Venus with a Mirror’, 1555, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Velazquez “The Rokeby Venus’, 1647-51, The National Gallery

This essay provides several aspects of history relating to these paintings. To start with, it will clarify why a composition of Venus and Cupid made by Reynolds has numerous titles. Moreover, it will provide research on the historical details shrouded around these three painting. In addition, the essay delivers a formal and iconographic analysis in a comparative perspective.

The idea of this essay came to me when I noticed a very familiar painting during my visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The title Beauty and Love did not remind me of anything. However, after further research I realised that I had seen its replica in the Hermitage. This subject peaked my interest so I decided to research it. My discoveries led me to the Tate Store where I was examining the Tate canvas one-to-one during a pre-arranged appointment.

About the title

To make this subject clearer it is essential to explain that several titles are associated with series of these paintings with Venus and Cupid. These titles are Beauty and Love, The Snake in the Grass, Nymph and Child, A Nymph and Cupid, Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus and Love Unloosing the Zone of Beauty. From one point of view, these titles are not so controversial. All the canvases show Venus, who is a goddess of Beauty and who looks as a beautiful nymph, and Cupid, who is a god of Love and numerous mythological images depict him as a child.

From the other point of view, it is still a question why the title Beauty and Love is attributed to the Soane’s canvas and is stated on its frame. Doubtless, Venus is a goddess of both Love and Beauty. Cupid is a god of Desire and Erotic Love. That way the emphasis is on the Venus only. If not, perhaps, to make the title more accurate, the canvas should be named Love and Desire. Originally Reynolds himself suggested calling it Half Consenting because this work contains so much charming but sensuous intimacy (Hermitage, 2017).

When Reynolds painted the inspirational A Nymph and Cupid, it was a period in history when nymph as a subject was especially popular (Cohen, 2014). However, later this Tate canvas was titled as The Snake in the Grass to refocus the subject from the nymph to the snake. At the same time, it is questionable why other canvases were still recorded as The Snake in the Grass even though only one of three canvases depicts a snake (Fig.2) (Cadell and Davies, 1819). In any case, to avoid any confusion (or maybe to add some) the Tate uses double title to the canvas, A Nymph and Cupid: ‘The Snake in the Grass’. 

To summarise, titles A Nymph and Cupid, Nymph and Child are the most general that could be definitely attributed to all three canvases. Title The Snake in the Grass would be legitimate in relation to the early canvas that is in the Tate. As for title Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus that identifies the canvas in the Hermitage, it could easily fit the other two replicas that were created earlier because all three artworks show this particular moment of Cupid tugging Venus’s belt (Fig.3).

Historical details

In the book The Literary Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds T. Cadell and W. Davies mentioned at least three variations with the title The Snake in the Grass. One of them was purchased by Earl Carysfort, the other one was presented to Henry Hope Esq., and the last one was purchased by Prince Potemkin (Cadell, 1819). This essay will reveal the history of possessors of these artworks (Fig.4).  

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Fig. 4 From left to right: A Nymph and Cupid: ‘The Snake in the Grass’. Oil paint of canvas, 124,5 * 99,1 cm. Exhibited in 1784. Tate, London; The Snake in the Grass, or Love untying the zone of Beauty. Oil on canvas, 124, 5 * 99,5 cm. 1785. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London;  Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus, oil on canvas, 127,5 * 101 cm. 1788. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. All by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  

About Tate canvas

A Nymph and Cupid: ‘The Snake in the Grass’ is currently not on display but in the storage of Tate. According to the museum this canvas was written and displayed in 1784 (Tate, 2017). At the same time, the current frame of the canvas declares the year 1788. This famous picture was painted by Reynolds for Earl of Carysfort and then exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts under the title Nymph and Cupid. Lord Carysfort purchased a number of works from Reynolds that made him one of his regular customers. (Perini, 2015).

According to Cora Gilroy-Ware, curator at Tate, in the 19th century this canvas was probably sold to the Prime Minister of that time, who hung it in his daughter’s bedroom (Cohen, 2014). Then Tate Gallery states that it was purchased by Tate in 1871 most probably by Henry Tate to add to his collection. The Tate museum was not established till 1897 when the gallery at the Millbank, now known as Tate Britain, was founded and Tate’s acquisitions formed the museum (Tate, 2017).

About Soane canvas

The canvas Love and Beauty, better known as The Snake in the Grass, that is currently displayed in Sir John Soane’s Museum, was painted in 1785. Perhaps, in the end it was not presented to Henry Hope as mentioned in the source (Cadell, 1819) and stayed in the possession of Reynolds. After his death in 1792 the canvas was bequeathed to Mary (née Palmer) Marchioness of Thomond as she was a niece of the artist (Britton, 1827). Afterwards, the canvas was bought by Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837) at the Christie’s sale of the Marchioness of Thomond’s collection in May 1821 (Soane, 2017).

This painting hangs in the dining room, opposite of portrait of Sir John Soane by an honourable portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. These two canvases relate to each other very well as both artists took part in Soane’s life. Reynolds, as the first President of the Royal Academy, presented a young Soane with a Gold Medal for Architecture in 1776. Lawrence, who was a president of Royal Academy in 1820–1830, was a good friend of Soane and portrayed Sir John Soane in 1829 (Soane, 2017).

About Hermitage canvas

John Joshua Proby who became 1st Earl of Carysfort was a friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Lord Carysfort took a great interest in visiting Russia. In 1785 he visited the Hermitage and suggested to the Empress of Russia Catherine the Second improving the representation of the English artistic school in Hermitage collection by adding paintings of Reynolds (Hilles, 1971). This suggestion was taken seriously and in the next years as part of Anglomania period when Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin were patronising British decorative arts (Clifford, 2000/2001). The paintings that became part of the British treasures in the Russian collection were Continence of Scipio and Infant Hercules Strangling Serpent. In addition, after returning from Russia in 1787, Lord Carysfort ordered a replica of the existing canvas for Prince Grigory Potemkin and paid 100 guineas (105 pounds) for it in 1788. This is an autograph version of Reynolds’s picture, painted for Lord Carysfort earlier (Cross 1997).

After the canvas was dispatched from England, it was in rooms of Prince Potemkin in the Winter Palace till his death in 1791. In 1792 Empress purchased the painting from the heirs of the prince. From 1797 to 1837 it was in the Dressing Room of the Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Winter Palace (Hermitage, 2017). Now this canvas is displayed in the Hermitage that is located in the Winter Palace and called Cupid untying the zone of Venus. The essential difference between the Hermitage version and the original one is the absence of a snake hiding near the elbow of Venus.

About inspiration and first variations

Sir Joshua Reynolds possibly got an inspiration for his variations on Venus and Cupid during 2 years he spent in Italy where he was studying the Old Masters and acquiring a taste for the “Grand Style”. In 1752 on the way back to England, Reynolds travelled overland via Florence, Bologna, Venice and Paris. This route acquainted him with Venus and Cupid from canvases of Francesco Albani (Fig.6) and Baldassare Franceschini (Fig.5) which could have become sources of inspiration for Reynolds’s mythological works (Perini, 1988).

A known earliest sketch of Venus by Reynolds is a lithograph The Snake in the Grass (Fig.11) that is currently in The British Museum collection. It represents ‘A woman reclining, her right arm raised and hand covering half of her face’ (British Museum, 2017).

About the model

There is no reliable information about who is seated for Venus. An English aesthete Horace Walpole claimed that Reynolds chose ‘Miss Wilson’ as a model. Her name was found in the artist’s pocket book for 1769 that was much earlier than the exhibiting of the canvas in 1784 (Cruickshank, 2010). This fact does not disprove the guess. Miss Wilson was a famous ‘lady of the town’ and she could easily provoke an artist to create such a tempting subject on the canvas. It would presumably explain the title The Snake in the Grass where the snake would represent a sexual desire.

The other version states that Lady Emma Hamilton was sitting for these paintings (Mannings, 2000). She was a famous and one of the most desirable models. Comparing a face from Reynolds’s canvases to Lady Emma, painted by artist George Romney (Fig.7), who produced dozens of her portraits as different characters, the resemblance is visible but not indisputable.

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Despite the fact of unproven identity of the model, many sources state that ‘the picture represents, as they say, Lady Hamilton’, finding in the features of Venus a resemblance to the famous beauty Emma Hart, the beloved of Admiral Nelson (British Museum, 2017).

The other idea is that all three models are different in this series. It is possible that the model for the original painting was indeed Lady Hamilton. However, the faces on all three paintings are not identical so the other two paintings possibly depict another model. Besides, due to a provocative scene it might be necessary for Reynolds to cover half of the model’s face to ensure the audience would never be confident about true identity of the sitting lady (Allen, 1996).

About the price

Transactions for Reynolds artworks were made in guineas. The guinea is a coin that was minted in the Kingdom of England and later in the Kingdom of Great Britain and then the United Kingdom between 1663 and 1814. From 1717 until 1816, its value was officially fixed at twenty-one shillings. The name came from the Guinea region in West Africa, where much of the gold used to make the coins.Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 21.46.53

A guinea was considered a more gentlemanly currency than the sterling pound and it became a currency for professional transactions. A man paid tradesmen, such as a carpenter, in pounds but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas. At auctions, pieces were often sold in guineas, but the seller was paid in pounds. The difference was the auctioneer’s commission.

The price for the canvases of Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1780s was between 50 and 400 guineas not to mention works that were presented to friends of Reynolds (Farrington, 1809). The prices for his Venuses were 200 guineas for the Tate, 100 guineas for the Hermitage, and for Soane which became part of the heritage that was later sold to Sir John Soane for £535. Evidently, because Sir John Soane purchased the painting in 1821, when guineas were no longer in usage, his purchase was completed in pounds.

Formal Analysis

Composition

Despite the fact that all these painting are organised in a very similar if not the same way, the composition can be defined differently (Fig.9). Soane canvas is composed in round shapes. A big circle encloses Venus and Cupid. However, in the background one smaller circle is formed that is created by the Venus’ elbow and Cupid’s head which attracts the viewer’s attention to the mountain located way behind the foreground. This is the only canvas among the three of them that shows such a far background making it an important element of the composition. Da Vinci in The Virgin of the Rocks also uses this technique by adding a piece of distinctive landscape through the ‘window’ created by nature.

 A composition at the Tate and Hermitage replicas is different due to added drapery. The composition at these canvases is created with diagonals that can be positioned differently. Tate painting is built with two diagonals creating a T-shape where the top diagonal based upon heads of Venus and Cupid and parallel to their bodies and where the other, secondary, diagonal is created by the Venus’ belt partly dividing the space between Venus and Cupid.

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Fig. 9 Three paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds with compositional diagonals. From left to right: Soane Venus and Cupid, Tate Venus and Cupid, Hermitage Venus and Cupid.

The painting from Hermitage is arranged in an X-shape. Apparently, it is very close in composition to the Tate replica. However, because of the more evident contrast between drapery and background (especially because of the colours of the sky) the drapery became a noticeable element of the canvas. The main diagonal goes from lower left to upper right and is reinforced by parallel lines of Venus’ and Cupid’s bodies. Their heads seem much closer because of the wave of the cloth hovering in the air. This line of heads also builds up the main diagonal. Even the border of the light on Venus’ arm also works to strengthen the main diagonal. The secondary line goes through elbows of Venus and is parallel to her shoulders and her belt, from the lower right to the upper left corners.

In 1795 after the canvas Love Unloosing the Zone of Beauty (Fig.14) was exhibited, an English poet R.B. Copper devoted a verse to it. He described the composition in the most elegant details and mentioned all characters of this piece like Cupid, Nymph and the snake (Northcote, 1818).  

Pose

Since 1759 Reynold was interested in painting Venus. First endeavour included Venus ‘reclining in a wooded landscape, while Cupid looks in through the boughs’. However, soon Reynolds switched his attention to painting ‘a very squalid beggar-woman that was placed in his sitting chair, with a child, no older than one year old, quite naked, upon her lap’ (Bolton, 1890).

There was another version of the composition of his Venus. Reynolds wrote ‘It is no more than a naked woman sitting on the ground leaning her back against a tree; and a boy peeping behind another tree’ (Fig.10) (Wendorf, 1998). Such grouping can be compared to Lotto’s Venus and Cupid from Metropolitan Art Museum (fig.1).

Despite the frankly sensual image of Venus or the Nymph, her posture is partly borrowed from an earlier drawing by a pen (Fig.11), capturing a nature of a young girl reclining in a chair too deep for her, and coquettishly embarrassed covering her face with her right hand (British Museum, 2017). Perhaps, one of the nieces of the artist became a model as his nieces spent much time in London with their uncle, and Reynolds painted their portraits a lot.

Regarding the discussed canvases, the description is as follows: a teasing young woman is reclined over a rock and leaned on her left arm. She covers half of her face with her right hand, raising her right arm and holding her elbow high up while she is watching at the viewer with a bewitching and inviting look. Reynolds captions her in this motion. At the same time a boy is leaning towards her laps but not sitting on her and tugging the ends of woman’s sash with his hands. He is patiently watching her face waiting for her reaction.

Even though at first sight woman’s hand positions seem the same, when studied closely, all three canvases have slight alterations (Fig.12). As for the right hand that covers woman’s face, it is seen that at Soane’s replica she turned her palm more to her face and we cannot see her thumb. On the contrary, the other two canvases show her thumb. The woman’s left hand is wrapped in the robe on Soane canvas while on Hermitage and Tate ones the hand is more visible showing fingers.

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Fig. 12 Three paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds with fragments of Venus’ face. From left to right: Soane Venus, Tate Venus, Hermitage Venus.

Light

At the first glance the light technique is very similar but after a closer look it appears to be very different. The brightest fragment of all three works is Venus’s chest. Her skin glares in the lightened parts. Cupid is lit in the same manner in all three paintings. His face, right arm and right wing are in light where the rest of his body is muted.

The Soane’s canvas (Fig.13) is immersed into soft and mild light that could be created by the nature. Such light could be the sun breaking through leaves. The mountain is enlightened giving an idea of a sunny midday. Borders between light and darkness are soft and gradual. The darkest parts are the rock where Venus lies and above her head in the crown of the forest.Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 21.47.49

Two other paintings are similar in the light ambience as a result of artistic drapery and theatrical glow that is especially emphasised on the Hermitage painting (Fig.15) where the light also has a very clear direction – the epicenter of the light is on the left shoulder of Venus. Even though the farther it is from that spot the more delicate is the light the transition from light to shadow is rather sharp and distinctive. Besides, the radius of the light circle is smaller than on other replicas.

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The Tate work (Fig.14) appears to have been captured at dusk when the sunlight has already gone but its presence still reflected in the clouds over the horizon. At the same time, in this canvas the clouds in the sky create an illusion of the coming storm when the sun is meant to shine but blustery clouds prevent this.

Shadows in all works create depth and isolation of the models. Reynolds blends shading, and his highlighting is so skilful that a viewer can tell that Venus’ garment is slightly transparent. Soane shadows are milder and on the contrary other replicas show abrupt transition from light to shadow. Shading at the Hermitage canvas adds more grace to the model via visually slimmer waist and outlined breasts.

Colour palette

In terms of colour palette Reynolds used quite muted tones in Tate work (Fig.14) and more contrasting ones in Hermitage work (Fig.15). Reynolds decisively attached colour, believing that it was the colour, and above all the warm colours, that would create the emotional structure of the work. Cold colours, in this case, blue ribbons, are used to enhance warm tones or contrast with them.

Soane painting (Fig.13) is made in naturalistic and earthy palette: creamy, ochre, rose, browns, greens, tints of blue and emerald. Venus and Cupid are painted in a similar manner. They have flaxen curly hair, similar transition from light to dark tones in Venus’ robe and Cupid’s wings. Venus wears an antique garment with blue strap and auburn belt. The background is built up in rich organic colours – tints of orange and ochre for top branches, various shades of green like myrtle and emerald. The farthest background is shadowy in pastel colours of ivory, viridian and blue.  

Tate’s canvas is much darker than others, it may be that it has darkened through years (it has been more than 2 centuries now) so it is hard to realistically describe its palette. It depicts the almond robe, glaucous belt and golden bow in Venus’s hair. The drapery is dark maroon with carnelian stripes. Cupid’s face is blush and his back is rosy that depicts his young age.

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Hermitage work has a saturated and bright palette. Ruby and mahogany and almost black in the shadow drapery, transparent crispy robe, sapphire silk belt and hairbow, light blue strap, rose cheek, flamy leaves on the tree. Skin of Venus and Cupid in the shadow is brown with terracotta parts. The bottom of the canvas is very dark, as well as the space under the drapery. The clouds are coarse mixing navy and ivory strokes. The horizon is illuminated with coral light.

Regarding Cupid Reynolds’ visitor Mason writes: I could not help testifying to my surprise at seeing him paint a little child, which seemed to have been nourished with gin rather than with milk’. To explain the intention Reynolds replied to him that ‘child’s flesh assisted him in giving a certain morbidezza (an extreme delicacy and softness) to his own colouring’. The landscape at the background is brown with peach tints in the navy-green sky.

Landscape

Three canvases have different background landscape. Soane models are located in a forest. In a passage through thicket one can notice a mountainous relief. Tate’s canvas is dark to recognise the landscape so well. However, Venus is seen not in a forest but in a more spacious environment with few bushes or trees behind her. The Hermitage canvas depicts a vast landscape. Even though the drapery cloth and branchy tree occupy big part of the canvas the picture is still filled with more air due to empty space above Venus’s left shoulder and in the upper left corner.

Iconographic analysis

About the belt

Assuming that the semantic and compositional centre of the work Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus is a zone, it would be important to understand what “a zone” is 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 and it was described by Homer in his “Iliad”. In 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 (The Iliad of Homer: XIV – 258). This fragment can be seen at the painting Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus by Guy Head (1771).Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 21.48.26

This girdle of Venus contains all the charms, both love and desire in it and acquaintances and requests, flattering speeches that more than once caught the mind and reasonable. This decorative element connects and unites all three works.

All three works contain this belt. However, taking into account that it should be one of its kind, it does not look as sophisticated as it could be and as it is depicted by Guy Head at his painting.

About the snake

Talking about the title ‘The Snake in the Grass’ the Snake becomes the centre of the painting. However, the snake is visible only on the Tate’s canvas. A snake, or serpent, is presumably associated here with the sensuality and sexual desire. In religion, mythology, and literature, serpents and snakes often stand for fertility or a creative life force.

By contrast, in some cases a snake is thought to refer to lasciviousness or the traps of conjugal love. Another interpretation is that the snake refers to jealousy or another hidden danger against which the lovers must defend themselves (Bayer, 2008).

Conclusion

In this essay, I investigated the history up to current days of three replicas of Venus and Cupid created by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and analysed these artworks from formal and iconographic aspects. It is a great fortune that all three works were available for viewing. The access to canvases in the Hermitage and Sir John Soane’s Museum was easy as they are displayed publicly. Despite the limited access to the painting in Tate it was still possible to request a viewing appointment via application that I had made in 2016.

It is important to mention a preserving condition of each canvas and their disposition in the rooms. As I mentioned before, in Tate the canvases The Snake in the Grass is stored in museum storage. The painting itself is in a good condition as it has no cracks but it had darkened significantly so details are hardly recognisable. In Soane’s museum the canvas Beauty and Love is located in a big and spacious room but it is not within a reach of natural light. The condition and colours are well preserved.

The Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus in the Hermitage placed in a room with other works of Reynolds which are The Infant Hercules and The Continence of Scipio. The colours do not look as bright as at the reproductions, perhaps, due to aging and a dark room it is located in. In addition, it is covered with cracks. According to the Russian art critic Alexandre Benois, from the three works of Reynolds the Hermitage one The Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus is ‘the most elegant’. As far as I am concerned, I consider the Hermitage Venus the most graceful replica among three of them.

The essay has provided a clarification of diverse titles that were given to the canvases by the artist, his contemporaries and proprietors of these artworks. The most recognisable titles are The Snake in The Grass and The Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus as they are more closely related to the subject than others.

Even though the composition, posing and original meaning of three paintings is almost the same due to distinctive colour palette, lighting and landscape, the final impression of the replicas is completely different. Perhaps, diverse titles also emphasise contrasting impressions.

As for iconography of these works the meaning of the snake at one of them is still uncertain. The most likely version is the serpent brings a sexual implication. The next question whether Venus was an original intention of the female model or she was meant to become and stay a nymph only. Taking into account that the belt is not showed especially precious it might not be that legendary zone of Venus.

It was not the only case when Reynolds created replicas of his own works. For example, the artist created at least two versions of Venus and the Piping Boy (Wendorf, 1998). His constant aspiration to produce something even more outstanding drove him during his artistic career. Even though he is known as the most famous portraitist, his antique subjects are also very significant part of his heritage.

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