Venus and Cupid

Left: Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Venus and Cupid, about 1525. Oil on beechwood panel, 39 x 26 cm. (Compton Verney; No. 10 in the online guide to the Northern European Gallery)

Right: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, probably early 1530s. Oil (identified) on wood, 81.3 x 54.6 cm. (London, National Gallery, NG6344)

Selected by: Susanna Avery-Quash

Lucas Cranach the Elder was one of the most versatile artists of the Northern Renaissance. Best known for his portraits of German Princes and leaders of the Reformation, he also painted religious subjects and mythological subjects. His erotically-charged female nudes appear in a host of pictures of Venus, Lucretia, the three Graces and the judgment of Paris.

These paintings of Venus and Cupid, one from Compton Verney and the other from the National Gallery, display Cranach’s ideal of female beauty. Unlike his contemporary Albert Dürer whose figures are based on anatomical study and influenced by Italian ideas of beauty, Cranach’s slender, sinuous figures reflect ideals of beauty characteristic of German Gothic art, exemplified in the round head and slender form of the Venus with tiny breasts and narrow hips. In both pictures Venus is provocatively posed and holds our gaze with her oblique glance, while her nudity is drawn attention to by her jaunty hat and large necklace, and also by a veil in the Compton Verney image. Moreover, her ivory-white body is accentuated against the dark foliage background.

Of the two pictures, the National Gallery’s version was painted a few years later, is a little larger and is more complex in composition. The Latin inscription at the top explains the subject: it refers to a fable by the ancient Greek poet Theocrites, which tells how Cupid, having been stung by bees when stealing honey and having complained of the pain to his mother Venus, is told that the wounds inflicted by his love-arrows will be far more painful.

Although popular with the Elector of Saxony and other contemporaries, Cranach’s nude subjects were rejected by the first directors of leading European art galleries, being deemed unsuitable for public display on account of their nudity, sensuousness, violence or ugliness. Indeed it was only in 20th century that the National Gallery acquired its three nude subjects by Cranach and the Venus and Cupid was the only one actually paid for as the other two were received as gifts.

Susanna Avery-Quash