The realm of Venus
(Adam Elsheimer [Circle of])


Venus and Cupid
Venus, Juno, and Minerva (?)
Oil on copper, Both 3 1/2 x 5 7/8 in.
(8.9 x 15 cm)

PROVENANCE: Private collection, England

This charming pair of Arcadian scenes can be closely linked with the circle of Adam Elsheimer. The first, which is directly based on a composition by Elsheimer, shows the goddess of love from behind, coyly looking over her shoulder at the viewer. At the centre Cupid precariously balances a basket of pink and white roses on his head. As he leans forward petals cascade to the ground. In the distance a group of amorous satyrs and nymphs merrily cavort to music. The almost lyrical placement of a nude within a verdant landscape reflects Elsheimer’s experience in Venice, where he stayed for two years before he moved to Rome in 1600. The second scene shows three nude women bathing in a shallow pool of water into which a naughty Cupid pees. It too reflects a knowledge of Venetian art, but cannot be related to any known composition by Elsheimer. Furthermore, its subject remains somewhat unclear, although as will be discussed below it may represent Venus, Juno, and Minerva.

Two versions of Elsheimer’s Venus and Cupid are known, one in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and another in the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the attribution of the versions in Cambridge and Vienna swung back and forth a number of times with scholars divided as to which was the original and which was a copy by Carlo Saraceni. Despite the fact that the Cambridge picture is badly damaged and has been heavily restored (the figure of Venus is abraded and the two doves flying above the trees have disappeared altogether), it is generally considered to be the prime version. The picture in Vienna is regarded as a copy, but the attribution to Saraceni has been rejected. A further seventeenth-century copy by an anonymous German or Netherlandish artist was sold by Dr. Franz Oppenheimer in Berlin in 1936.

Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, owned three small coppers by Adam Elsheimer showing the realms of Venus, Minerva, and Juno. Those depicting Venus and Minerva are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge while the third is lost. The pictures, which were engraved by Wenzel Hollar in 1646 (fig. 1), may have been set into a piece of furniture. The three goddess are those which Paris was asked to chose between, but in Elsheimer’s coppers the emphasis is shifted from the more usual narrative to an allegory of the three modes of life or ‘Vita Triplex’. Each of the goddesses reigns over one of the realms of man’s existence: the sensual or instinctive life; the intellectual or contemplative life; and the active life. Elsheimer’s source could have been either Vincenzo Cartari’s Imagini de i dei de gli antichi or Fulgentius the Mythographer’s Fable of the Judgement of Paris, since both describe in some detail the three modes of life.

Especially for Fulgentius Venus was seen as a symbol of pleasure. She should be shown naked, since the sin of lust is never cloaked. Roses blush at the outrage of her immodesty and their thorns prick with the sting of sin. While roses give pleasure, they are swept away by the swift movement of seasons. Just as lust is pleasant for a moment, but then disappears forever. The two doves are associated with Venus because they are fiercely lecherous in their lovemaking. Elsheimer’s Minerva are likewise closely based on the Fulgentius’s descriptions.

No engraving exists of the second painting shown here, but since it is paired with a version of Elsheimer’s Venus and Cupid it is worth considering that it might reflect another lost painting from the same series. If indeed the small coppers were conceived as furniture decoration, one can imagine a larger series, which elaborated the story of the Judgement of Paris. In this picture three women are seen bathing. The one at the left is depicted kneeling in profile and seems about to wash herself with a sponge. The figure standing behind her, who is turned directly towards the viewer, dries herself with a white towel. Further to the right, a third woman is seen from behind, stretching her arm above her head as she gently sponges it. The inclusion of Cupid to the far left strongly suggests that one of the three figures should be identified as Venus. Although the figure of Paris is conspicuously absent, the three nude women might plausibly be identified as Venus, Juno and Minerva preparing for Paris’s contest.

The pose of the kneeling figure and the soft, rolling landscape, which is dominated by a horizontal band of dark green trees, is re miniscent of a Landscape with a Bathing Nymph (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie; see fig. 2) that once was attributed to Elsheimer. It has been suggested that paintings such as the one Berlin played a significant role in popularising scenes of bathing nudes. Around 1618, Guercino painted a small canvas of a Landscape with Three Women Bathing (Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen). Although the dogs and the stag in the background might suggest that it refers to the story of Diana and Acteon, there is little else in the picture to confirm such a reading. A lost painting by Elsheimer of Diana and Her Nymphs Bathing in a Grotto is listed collection of Carlo Oldrado in 1619. There is no visual record of this picture, but one imagines that like the picture in Berlin and the Venus, Juno and Minerva it depicted nude woman against a verdant landscape setting.

As mentioned above the Cambridge and Vienna versions of Venus and Cupid were once both attributed to Carlo Saraceni. Francesca Cappelletti and Patrizia Cavazzini have noted that the landscape, palette and gestures of the Venus, Juno and Minerva have close infinities with Saraceni’s work and have suggested that both works might be by the Venetian artist, who like Elsheimer was active in Rome during the first decade of the seventeenth century. Saraceni is best known as a figure painter and executed only a few landscapes, which in the past were mostly attributed to Elsheimer. Indeed, they do rely heavily on the example of the German master, who was a notoriously slow worker and kept his unfinished pictures in his workshop for long periods. This undoubtedly gave other painters the opportunity to see them. Saraceni, for example, must have known Elsheimer’s Aurora (Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum) before it was over painted, since the figure of Ariadne in his scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte) exactly replicates the figure of Galatea, which is no longer visible in Elsheimer’s small copper. The problems that scholars have had in sorting out Elsheimer’s work attests to the reciprocal relationship that existed among artists working in Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It would be far-fetched to think that two different hands painted this pair of small coppers. But as Cappelletti and Cavazzini have noted, the fact that Venus and Cupid is a straightforward copy after Elsheimer has clouded the issue. They have suggested that perhaps Saraceni copied Elsheimer’s Venus and Cupid and then provided his own composition for Venus, Juno and Minerva.

H. Gerson, J. W. Goodison, and D. Sutton, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge: Catalogue of Paintings, Cambridge, England, 1960, I, pp. 201-203; and R. Eigenberger, Die Gemädegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Wien, Vienna and Leipzig, 1927, pp. 123-125.

For a summary of these early attributions, see W. Drost, Elsheimer und Sein Kreis, Potsdam 1933, p. 91.

A small winged putto also appears in the tree above Venus in the Cambridge version. This figure does not appear in either the Vienna version or the picture under consideration here. While the putto does appear in Hollar’s engraving (see below), it is quite difficult to read and could have conceivably have been misread as a bit of foliage if the print was the source for the picture in Vienna and the version shown here. We would like to thank David Scrase for confirming that the putto in the Fitzwilliam picture is original and not the invention of a restorer using the print as a guide.

H. Weizsächer, Adam Elsheimer der Maler von Frankfurt, Berlin 1952, II, p. 52.

Gerson, Goodison, and Sutton 1960, I, 201-203.

For the engravings, see Keith Andrews, Adam Elsheimer: Paintings, Drawings, Prints, Oxford 1977, figs. 79-81. The Venus carries the inscriptions: ‘A. Elsheimer pinxit’ and ‘W. Hollar fecit Antwerpiae ex Collection Arundeliana’. The Minerva carries the inscriptions: ‘A. Elsheimer pinxit’ and ‘W. Hollar fecit secundum Originale ex Collectione Arundeliana’. The Juno carries the inscriptions; ‘A. Elsheimer pinxit’ and ‘W. Hollar fecit secundum Originale ex Collectione Arundeliana 1645’. Although the inscriptions make it clear that the pictures were in Arundel’s collection, they do not appear in the 1656 inventory of his pictures at the time of the sale in Antwerp.

This allegorical tradition can be traced through the graphic work of Netherlandish artists such as Raphael Sadeler and Hendrick Goltzius, see H. Weizsäher, Adam Elsheimer der Maler von Frankfurt, Berlin 1936, I, 115 and Andrews 1977, p. 36.

V. Cartari, Le imagini de i dei de gli antichi, Venice, 1571; G. Auzzas, F. Martignago, M. P. Stocchi, and P. Rigo (eds), Vicenza, 1996, pp. 463-485. Fulgentius the Mythographer, trans by G. Whitbread, Ohio State University Press 1971, pp. 64-67.

Oil on copper, 14 x 20 cm, inv. 664A. The current Berlin catalogue lists the picture as Elsheimer (?), Gemäldegalerie Berlin: Gesamtverzeichnis, Berlin, 1996, p. 201. Keith Andrews, Adam Elsheimer: Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde, Zeichnungen und Radierungen, Munich, 1985, p. 202 lists it as from the circle of Elsheimer or Polenburgh.

Oil on canvas, 36.5 x 53.5 cm, see Giovanni Francesco Barbieri Il Guercino1591-1666, Sir Denis Mahon (ed.), exh. cat. Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, 1991, pp. 98-100.

E. Cropper and G. Panofsky-Soergel, ‘New Elsheimer Inventories from the Seventeenth Century’, The Burlington Magazine, 126, 1984, p. 481.

Ms communication to Patrick Matthiesen.
The Genius of Rome: 1592-1623, B. L. Brown (ed.), exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, pp. 30 and 220.

7 x 9 cm
Oil on canvas
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Italian - Roman
2001-2001: An Art Odyssey (1500-1720)
Hardbound millennium catalogue with special binding with 58 colour plates and 184 black and white illustrations, 360 pages. £35 or $50 plus p.& p.

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