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Venus and Mercury

This canvas is the largest of two fragments of an early painting by Poussin. A smaller picture with music-making putti would have formerly been to the left of this fragment. It is now in the collection of the Louvre. The painting was probably cut down around 1764 in France, because of damage to the top part of the canvas or because of its erotic content. Venus and Mercury rest in the shade beneath a group of trees, next to the goddess's gold chariot. In the original painting, four putti would have been to the left playing music and singing, while a fifth stands holding two laurel wreaths. He is intending to crown the victor of the fight that takes place centre stage, between a winged Cupid and a small satyr. The sensual nature of the picture, in its luscious rendering of pallid female and ruddy male flesh, is in character with many of Poussin's early paintings, deeply influenced by sixteenth-century Venetian painting and by the art of Correggio. It is thought that the painting represents the struggle between sacred love and sensual love, shown through the figures of Eros (the winged putto) and Anteros (with goat's legs) who are wrestling in the bottom left corner. This theme was particularly popular in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, and embodies 'one of Poussin's most cherished beliefs – that beauty is an expression of virtue and that both of these find their supreme manifestation in art' (Richard Verdi, London, 1986).

Currently on display

Nicolas Poussin
Gallery 12
80 x 87.6 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number