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Venus, Mars and Cupid

Rubens felt that painters should imitate sculpture but not too closely. They should be particularly careful to record those creases, dimples and areas of fat which distinguish real bodies from cold marble. His Venus is a painterly nude: soft, fleshy, beautiful (though faintly imperfect), and boldly executed with a coarse brush. Rubens makes the viewer aware of the sense of touch, whether we are enjoying the real surface of the paint or the imaginary surface of the skin or armour. But this painting is not merely sensual: Rubens wishes to flesh out his ideas. He uses Greek and Roman gods as the embodiment of abstract virtues, which might otherwise be impossible to visualise and to value. What at first seems to be a mythological family posing for their portrait, is in fact an allegory of the triumph of Peace over War, of Love over Hate. Mars (the God of War and appropriately set against a dark blood-red cloth) is literally disarmed by love: a little cherub cuts him from his armour. Venus meanwhile (the Goddess of Love and suitably light, white and tender) nourishes her baby, Cupid. The child clutches at his mother and is narrowly saved from falling. Below Cupid lies Mars's shield, with a monstrous face carved on it, like an evil black hole cut through the painting. The baby seems to be dangling over the mouth of Hell. To protect the spirit of love is a precarious venture, according to Rubens, especially at the height of the Thirty Years War. Venus feeds Cupid, who was her son (according to some accounts) by an adulterous union with Mars. DPG285 was probably painted in the early to mid-1630s. The figures of Mars and Cupid seem to derive from Drer 's print of the 'Penance of Saint John Chrysostom', while Venus repeats the figure of Peace in Rubens's 'Peace and War' in the National Gallery, London. The X-ray reveals that originally Cupid's left leg was back; Venus's drapery; at which Cupid tugs, was taut; and Venus's left leg swayed to the right, ending in front of the shield.

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Currently on display

Artist
Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Date
c.1635
Location
Gallery 2 - West Wall
Dimensions
195.2 x 133 cm
Materials
Oil on canvas
Acquisition
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number
DPG285